Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2012-13 Eastern Conference Preview

A week ago, as part of an elaborate annual preseason ritual (tonight, sweat lodge!), I broke down the 15 combatants in the NBA’s Western Conference and – with a helping hand from the invisible (unless you’ve got an internet connection and an account) hand of the open (betting) market – hashed out some opinions on the fate awaiting each in the coming months. 

Out West, collection of participant in the 2013 playoffs will likely strongly resemble that which took the floor(s) last spring, though the power structure has undergone something of a facelift. The acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have the Lakers once again ensconced in the uppermost tier of contender while some brilliant opportunism has elevated the Denver Nuggets to the second tier spot vacated by the Lakers. Injury and big game hunting gone could relegate the 2011 champion Mavericks from playoff picture, but the ascendant Utah Jazz, last season’s #8 seed, appear poised to assume their spot. 

The East differs somewhat. Frankly, it’s a hodgepodge of mediocrity. Outside of the top four, and probably a couple of bottom feeders, there is a case to be made that in no team is a lock to out- (or under-)perform its counterparts in the fat portion of the Eastern bell curve, as win totals in the 30s (and low-40s) abound.

The opening act of this production, while thorough and (I can only hope) occasionally amusing, ran a tad, um, how do you say… fucking long. My aim as I eyed the Eastern Conference was efficiency, conciseness. And…

Yeah… about that…

At least we've still got thoroughness and possible amusement, right? Let's move on.

Atlanta Hawks
2011-12 Record: 40-26 (5th in the East; lost 4-2 in Round 1 to the Celtics)
Key Additions: Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson Anthony Tolliver, Anthony Morrow
Key Departures: Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Willie Green, Tracy McGrady, Kirk Hinrich
Likely Rotation: Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, DeShawn Stevenson

OK, gonna try this again… THIS is the season in which the Atlanta Hawks fail to exceed expectations.

The loss of Joe Johnson, issues with depth on the wing (Kyle Korver, John Jenkins and DeShawn Stevenson? I smell long 2s from J-Smoove), the defensive difficulties that will likely accompany a Devin Harris-Jeff Teague-Lou-Will backcourt and the inevitable rollercoaster ride that is Contract Year Smoove casts doubt on this team’s ability to win 45+ regular season games.

And yes, shedding a commitment of nearly $90 million over the next four years is a huge plus for the new owners of an enterprise value at roughly $400 million, losing Joe Johnson will hurt. To contend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s like we’ve allowed an awful contract to cloud the reality that Johnson is a damn good NBA player. Yes, Devin Harris and Lou-Will will likely replace his statistical production, but you replace a steady All-Star – and your crunchtime catalyst – with Lou for One, and you will feel it.

That said, this remains a playoff caliber squad. Few teams boast a frontline combo as talented or versatile as Josh Smith and Al Horford. If Jeff Teague – who will be relied on more than ever this season – can play to their strengths, while making the most of arguably the East’s deadliest long-range duo in Korver and Anthony Morrow, this is potentially an excellent team. I would, however, like to see it first.

This team will win some games, and is a decent bet to wind up in the vicinity, but the call here is for UNDER 43 wins, if only because the alternative is tough for me to commit to.

Boston Celtics
2011-12 Record: 39-27 (4th in the East; lost 4-3 in conference finals to the Heat)
Key Additions: Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green (missed last season due to heart surgery), Jared Sullinger
Key Departures: Ray Allen, Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Pietrus, Jermaine O’Neal, Sahsa Pavlovic
Likely Rotation: Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Jason Collins, Fab Melo

I love this team. I am of the belief that the 2012-13 Boston Celtics’ performance will exceed preseason expectations.

This Celtics team is eerily reminiscent of recent iterations of the Spurs – let’s Mad Lib, shall we?

Simultaneously over- and underrated Tony Parker Rajon Rondo returns, as not only the primary offensive catalyst (I’m looking for 17 points per), but the night in, night out linchpin that generates early season MVP buzz beyond any he’s garnered before. Manu Ginobili Paul Pierce continues to answer the bell. Not reliant on athleticism for his scoring, Manu Pierce continues to add to his legacy as perhaps the greatest grinder of his era. In those, most vital moments – on the road, shorthanded and the fate of the season in the balance – few players can be counted on with greater faith than Manu Pierce to, hell or high water, figure out a way – any way, no matter how ugly – to hang 25 on the scoreboard. Anyone that watched Game 2 of the Celtics' first round series in Atlanta – Rondo suspended and the Hawks eyeing a 2-0 advantage – was witness to absolute mater class in grinding, P.P.-style.

And Tim Duncan Kevin Garnett? Hehe.

Duncan Garnett, now entering his 16th 18th season, is no longer the player he once was. Right?? Sort of. That Duncan KG is simultaneously well off of his peak yet remains offensively productive, a genuine gamechanger on defense and perennial top-12 MVP candidate (admittedly, this applies more to Garnett) speaks less to any emergent shortcomings in his game than it does to the unfathomable heights to which he’s ascended over the past decade and a half.

Outside of the top three, the Spurs Celtics boast an irrationally confident veteran off of the bench for whom confidence sometimes outstrips ability – potentially abrasive in the wrong situation, but an ideal fit alongside an established core (Stephen Jackson Jason Terry; there is a Manu parallel to be drawn as well), a young-ish big man whose role seems to expand with time, but tenuously at best (Tiago Splitter Brandon Bass), a high-upside young big with health concerns (DeJuan Blair Jared Sullinger/Jeff Green) and a pair of perimeter defenders (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee) whose the ability to contribute at both ends in big moments could play as big a role playoff life and death as any performance turned in by their more accomplished mates.

Either I’m an idiot, or... that may not end well for me. Either way, look for the 2012-13 C’s to cruise past 50.5 wins, settling somewhere in the 55-57 range.

Brooklyn Nets
2011-12 Record: 22-44 (12th in the East)
Key Additions: Joe Johnson, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche, Josh Childress
Key Departures: Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Gerald Green, Shelden Williams, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson
Likely Rotation: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, C.J. Watson, MarShon Brooks, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic, Josh Childress

Let’s keep this simple: the Brooklyn Nets are the best professional basketball team in New York City. And it might not be close.

A year ago, in previewing a potentially catastrophic lame duck team, I said of Deron Williams, “… 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.”

So… maybe it does. But last year, in a nightmare situation – in an arena as inspiring as the Berlin Wall, lame ducks moving not to the greener pastures of a new region, but less than 20 miles east, to just a cooler neighborhood (think about that. The 2011-12 Nets played their home games against a backdrop of “Ok, let’s get this over with a blow this shitbox for our new digs down the road. As long as we still have to be here, can we interest you in some $40 upper level seats?”) – 22-44 had to feel downright triumphant. (And topped 21.5. Holla at the dirty Jerse!)

For a team that got a whopping five games from its 20-a-night center, just 16 from Gerald Wallace following his acquisition at the trade deadline, trotted out Shelden Williams and Johan Petro for more than 2,200 minutes and lived in constant fear that its cornerstone piece would spurn them in free agency, survival was victory.

Script flipped.
The Nets enter this season as a case study in optimism. A fantastic new building, in a vibrant neighborhood (rather than a soulless parking lot in East Rutherford), embraced (initially, at least) as “New York’s new team,” upgraded talent, healthy and with a reinvigorated D-Will, fresh off 2011-12’s No Slip-ups Til Brooklyn tour. Kind of a lot to like.

At the offensive end of the floor, the Open Bar of Optimism stays slingin’ drinks all night. I mean, when your worst starter is either Gerald Wallace or Kris Humphries, shit’s breakin’ your way. Combine this with a second unit of legitimate NBA professionals (and Andray Blatche), and you’ve got a attack capable of pounding you in waves.

In Deron Williams (in “y’all musta forgot” MVP mode), “Spot Up Joe” Johnson, Brook Lopez (the apple of Shaq’s eye), Gerald Wallace (probably still the best “role player” in the NBA) and Kris Humphries (the Kim bullshit aside, what exactly is wrong with 14 and 11 per 36?), the Nets boast, a starting five that compares favorably with almost any in NBA.

Behind them, MarShon Brooks (in a defined role as the #1 bench scorer), Andray Blatche (mark my words, we will look back on this as the one year that he “got it”; booted out of DC, forced to take a one-year deal… ‘Dray wants to get paid!), Reggie Evans (boards galore), C.J. Watson (former Bench Mobber and D-Rose stand-in) and Bosnian sharpshooter Mirza Teletovic. The Nets have started inferior units in the recent past.

A lot has been made of the Nets’ shortcomings on defense – and yes, they are real. However, the playoffs are likely the time that the Nets’ issues at the defensive end will come home to root. On a night in, night out basis, against a decidedly mediocre Eastern Conference, many an opposing defense to equal footing. This will be an excellent regular season team. Last year D-Will near-singlehandedly dragged the Nets to the middle of the NBA’s offensive pack. You give greatness some support, and why shouldn’t these guys easily surpass 44 wins, and win three out of every five?

Charlotte Bobcats
2011-12 Record: 7-59 (15th in the East)
Key Additions: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ramon Sessions, Ben Gordon, Brendan Haywood
Key Departures: D.J. Augustin, Derrick Brown, Corey Maggette, D.J. White
Likely Rotation: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, Ramon Sessions, Ben Gordon, Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker, Byron Mullens, Brendan Haywood, Tyrus Thomas

Make no mistake, the Bobs will still be bad, but they have taken the first steps toward burying the calamity of a year ago. While their 2011-12 “effort” was insufficient in securing the services of Anthony Davis, the addition of a hard-working, competitive potential shutdown defender (and possible All-Star, if he can find a jumper) in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist says a great deal about the vision of new coach Mike Dunlap.

For a coach looking to implement a small-ball strategy predicated on controlling tempo with pressure defense-induced turnovers, a pair of athletic wing defenders (MKG and Gerald Henderson) and a potential beast in the paint (Bismack Biyombo; fifth in Block Rate as a rookie) is not a terrible jumping off point. Plus, be it due to rookie status or membership in the sorriest club in NBA history, one would imagine Dunlap will get these guys to buy in without much resistance.

Offensively, the Bobs are no juggernaut, but ought not replicate the historic ineptitude of 2011-12, when they averaged 95.2 points per 100 possessions, 5.6 points per 100 behind the next-to-last-place Raptors. For a bit of perspective, the Miami Heat – NBA champs and the NBA’s eighth most efficient offense – were “just” 5.8 points per 100 possessions better than the Raptors.

This year, Charlotte features a backcourt that’s exhibited at least some offensive competence in the NBA. Ramon Sessions has failed to set down NBA roots, but is an excellent pick-and-roll point guard, a nifty penetrator and, more recently, a capable shooter. He will pair with Henderson and Ben Gordon, young and old (I know Kemba Walker is listed as a point guard, but I almost can’t think of one and not the other).

In a weird, NBA-centric take on “My Two Dads” (timely, huh? Look it up, youngsters), Sessions’ and Gordon’s top priority will be the development of young Kemba. My RoY pick a year ago, Walker provided brief glimpses of the ability that will keep him in the NBA for a decade. Unfortunately, too often he exhibited decision-making and a suspect jumper that landed him on the pine. While Walker grows into his NBA self, look for a bounceback year from Gordon, who, by default, is the man best suited to thrive in Dunlap’s 3-ball-friendly offense.

I said it a year ago about the Sacramento Kings, and I will say it again here. There is frankly no reason to back a squad that barely won one out of every 10 games a year ago to win one out every four. And while significant changes have been made at all levels of the organization, there is little reason to believe in a rate of victory more than double that of a year ago.

Yeah… I don’t know though.

Between the influx of legitimate NBA talent (not to be taken for granted with the Bobs), the departure of win repellent Corey Maggette, the prospect of Biyombo channeling his inner Mutombo, Byron Mullens’ development as a 7-foot perimeter threat, young, athletic wings aspiring to exciting ball, the sun setting on a depressing era of cheapness and brazen tanking, and, well, pure, unadulterated contrarianism, I’m picking the Bobcats to conclude the regular season with OVER 19.5 victories.

Chicago Bulls
2011-12 Record: 50-16 (1st in the East; lost 4-3 in Round 1 to Philadelphia)
Key Additions: Nate Robinson, Marco Bellineli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich
Key Departures: Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III
Likely Rotation: Derrick Rose (once healthy), Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson, Marco Bellineli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich

This could be a rough year for the Bulls.

First off, they lost three Bench Mobbers in Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. For a team that defines itself with depth and defense, that's gotta hurt.

Now, Thibs is a phenomenal defensive coach, and his presence, along with those of Luol Deng, looking-for-a-contract Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah will keep the Bulls’ vaunted defense from derailing. However, this team’s dominance on defense has stemmed from its depth and versatility. With Asik – one of the best interior defenders in the world – gone, Gibson will be asked to assume a heavier workload. This probably means a big year (and a nice-sized payday) for Taj, but a potentially problematic one in that a) he can no longer join forces with Asik, with whom he played 500+ minutes in 2011-12 (at a +115-point clip) and b) out of necessity, Thibs may now be tempted to give him “Luol Deng-level TLC.”

Also, Derrick Rose – the spark plug, carburetor and suspension of the offense – is still rehabbing his knee. Even if Rose returns by February or March, he will probably require a minute to regain his form. As a result, an offense boasting Deng, Carlos Boozer, Nate Robinson, Rip Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich, Marco Bellineli and Vlad Radmanovic as significant components will be asked to win three out of every five games for most of an NBA season. You feelin’ good about that?

Given the cohesiveness of this core and the way they play defense it tough to see an out and out disaster for the 2012-13 Bulls, but this team is priced for near-perfection, and, with a challenged offense, will fall short of 48 wins.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2011-12 Record: 21-45 (13th in the East)
Key Additions: Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles
Key Departures: Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker
Likely Rotation: Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles, Tristan Thompson, Alonzo Gee, Omri Casspi, Daniel Gibson, Samardo Samuels

Last season, Kyrie Irving proved himself worthy of the #1 overall draft choice (it seems silly now, but remember this was a debate?) and cemented his status as a superstar. Few players in recent memory have wasted less time in establishing themselves among the very best in the league. Fewer still have so deftly navigated the professional ranks that Draft Day uncertainty not only morphs into universal adulation, but is altogether forgotten. Fewer still have authored so brilliant an opening act as to re-instill hope and faith in a fan base but a year removed from the spirit-mauling loss of a generational superstar. In 51 games.

Seriously, how many rookies have parachuted into so bleak a scene and so comprehensively rehabilitated the psyche of an organization and a city? I’m not talking about the optimism that accompanies the arrival of young talent or a better-than-expected squad. I’m talking about hope for the hopeless. Defibrillator paddles.

51 freaking games.

Offensively, though, Irving is surrounded by inefficiency – C.J. Miles is a 40% shooter, Tristan Thompson is an awful finisher (57% at the rim, 29% from everywhere else, 55.2% FT last season), as are Alonzo Gee (32% from 3, 50% at the rim) and Omri Casspi (40% from the field, 31.5% from 3) – and inexperience (rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller), there is cause for guarded optimism.

As bad as Thompson is at sticking the ball through the hoop, he’s among the NBA’s best at corralling it, posting a 14.4% Offensive Rebound Rate (2nd in the NBA) as a rookie. With a healthy Anderson Varejao (5+ offensive boards per 36 minutes in 25 games a year ago and an ORB Rate of at least 10.9% in seven of eight NBA seasons) and incoming seven-footer Zeller in tow, the Cavs are poised to be one of the league’s better offensive rebounding teams. Additionally, Casspi is healthy and in a contract year and, though inefficient, Miles’ best days in the NBA came while playing alongside an elite point guard in Deron Williams.

Speaking of which, remember that thing I said above, about D-Will? It applies here as well. Barring injury, Kyrie Irving is bearing down on “legitimate superstar, perennially one of the NBA’s ten best players [and] top-three at his position (I’ll hold off on the Hall for now)…” This guy doesn’t quarterback 50-loss teams. Look for at least 32 wins from the Cavaliers in 2012-13.

Contention? That’ll take a minute or two. Hell, until this crew starts defending on even a semi-consistent basis, playoff ball will prove elusive. A healthy Anderson Varejao, a competent-as-a-rookie Tristan Thompson, no defensive disaster Antawn Jamison, solid vet C.J. Miles and a presumably improved Irving point to an improvement over last season’s bottom-five (108.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) defense. Though not a playoff team, it should be sufficient to elevate the 2012-13 Cavs from bottom feeders, to merely “bad.”

Detroit Pistons
2011-12 Record: 25-41 (10th in the East)
Key Additions: Andre Drummond, Corey Maggette, Kim English
Key Departures: Ben Gordon, Ben Wallace
Likely Rotation: Greg Monroe, Rodney Stuckey, Andre Drummond, Brandon Knight, Corey Maggette, Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Will Bynum, Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell

For the first time in some time, the Detroit Pistons appear to have a plan, and a complement of NBA personnel with which to implement it.

After a 4-20 start to the 2011-12 season, future All-Star Greg Monroe (15.4 and 9.7 in 31.5 minutes per game; 56.3% True Shooting and a 22.0 PER) led the Pistons to a split in the season’s final 42 games. They enter this season in the midst of an intriguing youth movement and fairly deep on the front line, and destined for OVER 32.5 wins.

Joining Monroe up front is the ninth pick from June’s draft, Andre Drummond. At 6’10”-270, Drummond cuts the figure of an NBA big man, and, if early returns are to be trusted, is decidedly “not lost” against NBA competition – which is reasonably about the best one can expect from a half-dozen otherwise meaningless games. At the forward spots, Detroit will rely on an eclectic sampler consisting of longtime Hype favorite Tayshaun Prince, now-healthy (and quietly pretty damn good) Jonas Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva, Corey Maggette, no-way-he's-as-bad-as-last-year Austin Daye and Jason Maxiell. The ability of this crew to turn in a healthy and productive season is open to debate, but when you throw this much relatively competent frontcourt at a wall, something is going to stick.

The backcourt, meanwhile, while woefully thin, should improve on a productive 2011-12. Rodney Stucky continues to put up solid, if hollow numbers (17.8 points and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes; 17.6 PER), while second year lead guard Brandon Knight looks to build on an encouraging rookie season in which he averaged 14.3 points, 3.8 assists and shot 38% from distance in 32 minutes per game. Backing up each where necessary is Will Bynum, a quality veteran whose stats from a year ago mirror Knights (14.3- 3.9- 4.6) though he connected on just 24% from deep.

Indiana Pacers
2011-12 Record: 42-24 (3rd in the East; lost 4-2 in conference semifinals to the Heat)
Key Additions: Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, D.J. Augustin
Key Departures: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Lou Amundson, Leandro Barbosa
Likely Rotation: Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, Paul George, David West, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, Lance Stephenson

Looking for some optimism? There’s plenty to be found in the starting five. Parts of it, at least.

No longer the sole focus of the offense – though inexplicably still under contract for two more years. Seriously, how is that deal not nearly up yet? – Danny Granger continues to contribute, pouring in 20.2 points per 36 minutes, thanks to 38% and 87% respectively from behind the 3-point and free throw lines (but just 41.6% overall) and playing solid man defense. Per Basketball Prospectus, a year ago, Indy “was 11.7 points per 100 possessions better with Granger on the floor.”

Meanwhile, David West – older but further removed from major knee surgery – continues to score efficiently (15.7 points per 36 minutes, on 48.7% FG, 80.7% FT). In the final year of a two-year deal, West, a pro’s pro to begin with, should be at his best, striving for one last payday before his 33rd birthday. The concern with West lies not in his productivity or impact on the team, but in what to do with him next summer.

And then we’ve got belle of the blogosphere, Paul George. Intoxicating potential personified. At 6’8”-215, he is obscenely athletic, an excellent rebounder, defensively adept and seemingly capable from the outside (38.5% from 3 in 2011-12). George reportedly spent the summer trying to elevate his handles to two-guard caliber. If he’s had even moderate success on this quest, ex-Fresno Stater could be the revelation of the 2012-13 season.

On the other hand…

The lone departure of note is meh-but-not-terrible Darren Collison, replaced at the point by statically comparable, perfectly ordinary George Hill. And his unconscionable $40 million, five-year deal. The fuck? $40 mill?? For George Hill?? I’d rant about how mediocrity has never been so richly rewarded, but this is, after all, the NBA. In exchange for Collison (and Dahntay Jones), the Pacers brought into the fold another beacon of mediocrity, Mavs’ backup big man, Ian Mahinmi. To whom they will pay $4 million per season for each of the next four.

Yep, in celebration of his triumphant return to Indy, Donnie Walsh (basically NBA Bill Parcells at this point, no?) committed $48 million over the next four years to George Hill and Ian Mahinmi. For those scoring at home, these, combined with the four-year, $58 million deal (a defensible overpayment) awarded to Roy Hibbert represents an annual commitment of $26.5 million to a trio of players, at two positions, with no track record of contributing more than 30 minutes per game to an NBA team.

With that said, this remains a decent team, one with too much talent and size at key positions to regress dramatically. With a tough road ahead for Chicago and a fairly weak division, this may be your Central Division champ. That said, the questions at the 1 and the 5, along with a suspect (at best) second unit (D.J. Augustin, Lance Stephenson, Tyler Hansbrough, Gerald Green and Mahinmi), will keep the win total UNDER 51.5 (45-48) and the Pacers’ run as Eastern Conference pseudo-contenders short-lived.

Miami Heat
2011-12 Record: 46-20 (2nd in the East; defeated OKC 4-1 to win NBA championship)
Key Additions: Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis
Key Departures: None
Likely Rotation: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, James Jones, Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony

The revolution was, in fact, televised. And it was devastating.

Writing about the Miami Heat – well, LeBron James, really – has taken on a certain degree of difficulty of late. Take a deep dive and probe every wrinkle of the simultaneously delicate and devastating dominance, every bump and turn on the journey? Or go minimalist?

Let’s do the latter here, if only because a) this thing is already well on its way to unwieldy and b) I’ve got a sneaking suspicion we may discuss the Heat again some time. Plus, at its very core, this situation is reasonably easy to summarize.

The Miami Heat are now the early ‘90s Bulls. Their linchpin is a generational talent at not only at the apex of his incredible ability, but at the upper bounds of reasonable expectation for mastery of the game. Those Bulls could have won 50-55 with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (in fact, they did) - as could Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh without LeBron – but each will be remembered as truly special for one reason.

This is simply a LeBron health story. Barring an injury that put LBJ on the shelf for an extended period or compromises his physical ability while on the floor, he will continue to defy convention and the Heat will cruise past 60.5 wins. Otherwise? This is a very good team, for whom all bets are off.

Milwaukee Bucks
2011-12 Record: 31-35 (9th in the East)
Key Additions: Samuel Dalembert, John Henson, Doron Lamb
Key Departures: John Leuer, Carlos Delfino, Shaun Livingston
Likely Rotation: Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova, Sam Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders, Drew Gooden, Doron Lamb, Beno Udrih, Tobias Harris

This oughta be fun. Twice the top East team to miss the playoffs, the Bucks enter the 2012-13 season powered by a prolific, but defensively challenged (and frighteningly shallow) backcourt in which the entertaining-as-hell top two (Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings) will both be dialing for dollars. Following last season’s Ellis-Andrew Bogut trade the Bucks ranked near the top of the league on offense, but near the bottom on D. This year, the backcourt is REALLY motivated. Seriously, I cannot wait to see these two run this offense.

Up front, there is fun, fairly deep collection of pieces. Ersan Ilyasova is fresh off a season in which he played 60 of 66 games, averaged 17 points and 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, made a crazy 45.5% of his threes and rebounded at rates slightly below those of Kevin Love. He’s only started 120 of 267 career games, and his 3-point shooting is likely to regress, but Ilyasova may be the best power forward the “casual fan” has never even heard of.

Behind him, there’s an interesting array of frontcourt talent behind him. The combination of Sam Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders is the groundwork of a solid defensive unit, even with Drew Gooden around, but it’s really tough to see where the non-Ilyasova scoring punch comes from.

The Bucks are slated to be one of this season’s League Pass darlings. And it’s with good reason. This backourt, plus Ilyasova, can go on some devastating tears, but the questions surrounding Jennings and Monta, the potential that one or both could be dealt, awful perimeter defense and little frontcourt scoring depth will leave these guys short of 36.5 wins.

New York Knicks
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (7th in the East; lost 4-1 in Round 1 to the Heat)
Key Additions: Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Chris Copeland
Key Departures: Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields, Josh Harrelson, Toney Douglas
Likely Rotation: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert (once healthy), J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Steve Novak, Ronnie Brewer, Chris Copeland, Pablo Prigioni

Again with this?

Alright, let’s take it from the top. The Knicks have more than $53 million of a $74 million payroll (roughly 72%; plus another ~$120 million over the next two years) tied up in their incongruous Chandler-Melo-Amar’e frontcourt. Chandler is a defensive anchor and Carmelo can put points on the board, but Amar’e, a shell of his former self, is neither equipped to slot into a role with the starting five nor willing to accept the bench role for which he’s now better suited.

Things don’t get much prettier lower on the pay scale. After one odd-timed bout of frugality (there was more at play there, I know), in which the spendthrift Knicks deemed 25 million back-loaded dollars for Jeremy Lin excessive, $22 million was invested (for the same three-year stretch) in rapidly fading 39 year-old Jason Kidd and perfectly average, occasionally pudgy Ray Felton. Huh?!

Now, Lin is by no means a proven NBA commodity. He is, however, just 23 years old, possesses good size for a lead guard (6’3”-200) and, based on the small sample to which we were privy, an NBA skill set. Were he to develop into nothing more than a competent backup, he’d not be grossly overpaid at the price for which he ultimately signed. Never mind the fact that his marketability, both domestically and in the coveted Asian market, would likely have paid off the contract on its own. Whether a misguided act of fiscal responsibility or one of spite in response to the temerity of Lin to not only test the market, but accept a contract several million dollars richer than the one offered by the Knicks, it’s tough to argue the Knicks pursued the correct course of action. Ugh, let’s move on…

Front line depth comes in the form of Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace – all 120-ish combined years of them. Camby is perpetually an asset to whatever frontcourt he’s a part of, but he is already banged up, while Thomas and ‘Sheed… look, if Kurt Thomas and Rasheed freaking Wallace are playing major roles in the outcome of your season, you’re no good.

On the bright side, the acquisition of Ronnie Brewer at the price at which it went down ($1.07 million) will prove to be an incredible bargain, Hardwood Hype Hall of Famer J.R. Smith will dial for dollars in starter’s minutes as the primary perimeter scorer for an NBA team and, hopefully, good news will abound regarding a healthy return (probably not until next season) for Iman Shumpert.

Maybe I’m mistaken, but there’s not a lot in this scenario that screams “50-win team.” Hell, the Knicks are more likely to miss the playoffs than they are to win more than 46 games. Over the past decade and a half, no one has gone broke consistently betting against the Knicks. I’ll change course when I have to.

Orlando Magic
2011-12 Record: 37-29 (6th in the East; lost 4-1 in Round 1 to the Pacers)
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Gustavo Ayon, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless,
Key Departures: Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark
Likely Rotation: Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis, J.J. Redick, Al Harrington, Gustavo Ayon, Nikola Vucevic, Hedo Turkoglu, Ishmael Smith, Josh McRoberts

The Magic have embarked on a lengthy and challenging journey. On the heels of an exhausting, excruciating and, frankly, fucking bizarre divorce from arguably the greatest player in franchise history, however, closure must be met with open arms.

That said, for all of last season’s douchebaggery, Dwight Howard is a gamechanger – athletic juggernaut, monster on the boards, 20-point scorer and the best interior defender on Earth. Basically an evolutionary Moses Malone. Among individuals not named LeBron James, he is the most dominant force at both ends of a basketball court.

So yeah, he’s gone, as are two of the 2011-12 squad’s top four scorers, Ryan Anderson and Jason Richardson. In addition to being one of the league best shooting big men (39.3% from 3, a league-best 166 made; 87.7% FT), Anderson is excellent on the offensive glass (13% ORB Rate) and, with turnovers on just 6.4% of his possessions, a fortress of possession. Richardson, meanwhile, no longer the player he was at his peak, did bury 102 triples of his own, at a respectable 36.8% clip.

Thing is, new GM Rob Hennigan, 30 years old and fresh off an education at the Ivy League of NBA personnel – San Antonio and OKC – is likely not aspiring to NBA purgatory. As best he can, with the lengthy, pricey reminders of the Otis Smith era that permeate the payroll, Hennigan will work to strip this thing down to the studs, shedding payroll and short-term assets wherever possible. That means that Redick, a potential boon for a contender (and an expiring $6 million deal), will likely not see out the season in Orlando, with Harrington and Hedo bound to the squad only by their lack of desirability. The goal for this season will be logging as many quality minutes as possible for youngsters Nikola Vucevic and raw-but-exciting rookie Mo Harkless, while accumulating ping pong balls.

For as long as this roster remains intact, they will not embarrass themselves. They will work hard, score kinda consistently and notch the occasional upset. They will, however, fall short of 23.5 wins, in part because they will struggle on D and, more importantly, with much of whatever’s not tied down priced to sell, likely see an exodus of whatever talent remains.

Philadelphia 76ers
2011-12 Record: 35-31 (8th in the East; lost 4-3 in conference semifinals to the Celtics)
Key Additions: Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Dorell Wright, Kwame Brown
Key Departures: Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams, Sam Young, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless,
Likely Rotation: Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Nick Young, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Dorell Wright, Kwame Brown, Royal Ivey/Malik Wayns

This is, in theory, a very good team.

Andrew Bynum remains the best center in his conference. Massive, physically dominant and highly skilled, Bynum fits perfectly the mold of the old-school big man around which NBA franchises yearn to build. He’s a fantastic rebounder, particularly on the defensive end (26.1% DRB Rate), and, thanks to a refined post game and great hands, is consistently around 60% True Shooting (over 73% on 6.5 shots at the rime helps; and this year, no Bean!). On this team, he’ll have every opportunity to realize his immense potential as a franchise cornerstone.

Alongside Bynum up front is Spencer Hawes, who, at 7’1”, possesses a rare combination of shooting and passing ability. Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday, though unlikely ever to draw Chris Paul comparisons (or the same paycheck. C’mon Jrue!), is the best point guard with whom Bynum has ever taken the floor, and Dorell Wright, Jason Richardson and Nick Young – who hit a combined 310 3-pointers in 2011-12, at a better than 35% clip – will be manning the arc. Evan Turner will board at a position-elite level, Thad Young will attempt to build a Sixth Man of the Year case, while Lavoy Allen and (whatever, I suppose) Kwame Brown provide depth up front. Pretty good, right?

Not so fast, my friend!

There is much to praise about Andrew Bynum’s game, but game in, game out consistency ain’t it. As a Laker fan, I will remember ‘Drew similarly to the way I remember Shaq – a fantastic player for whom a veritable warehouse packed with the tools of basketball domination represented not a ticket to immortality, but a less cumbersome path to job “very well done.” Excellent at their jobs, not consumed by them.

Bynum, who looks a bit, umm, doughy, almost can’t help but hang a 22-12 on the Eastern Conference this season. But the fact that he’s got ringZZ, has already gotten paid (~$66 million in career earnings by season’s end) and runs virtually no risk of jeopardizing next summer’s max-money payday does little to inspire confidence that he’ll dramatically outperform expectations.

Consider also, that a) visions of the max continue to dance in Jrue Holiday’s head (trying to “earn it” would be problematic), b) despite his haughty rebound rates, Turner looks like little more than a role player, c) Thad Young’s ability continues to manifest only in flashes, d) Wright, Richardson and Swaggy P all represent downgrades from Lou Williams and e) in order to acquire Bynum, Philly shipped out perhaps the league’s best perimeter defender and (multiple reasons for this) amnestied the team’s best interior defender, Elton Brand.

Against such a backdrop, are you really dying to back the first-ever Andrew Bynum-led team to tally at least 48 wins? Not me – these guys probably top .500, but with fewer than 47.5 wins.

Toronto Raptors
2011-12 Record: 23-43 (11th in the East)
Key Additions: Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valencuinas, John Lucas III, Landry Fields
Key Departures: James Johnson, Aaron Gray, Gary Forbes
Likely Rotation: Kyle Lowry, Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Landry Fields, Jonas Valenciunas, DeMar DeRozan, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, John Lucas III, Terrence Ross

I hate to do this with a team I really like going forward, but we really gotta move this thing along. How’s that for the word-count equivalent of the Knicks’ being “fiscally responsibility” when it came to Jeremy Lin?

The Raptors enter the 2012-13 season deeper with NBA talent than at any point in recent memory.

Despite missing out on Canada’s own over the summer, the Raptors stole the services of Kyle Lowry from the Rockets. Behind him at the point is longtime Rap, and one of the most efficient lead guards around – and a $10.5 million expiring deal – Jose Calderon, as well as perhaps the best third PG in the league in John Lucas III. Alongside, with rookie Terrence Ross smoothing out a plethora of rough edges is Landry Fields. Now pulling down more than $6 million, Fields need not justify his worth. Crashing the boards like he did in his early days in New York and playing tough perimeter D will make him a fan favorite and restore him to the upper ranks of the league’s role players.

Up front, Andrea Bargnani – with Dirk in decline, probably as prolific a perimeter big as there is in the NBA – hopefully himself healthy for the first time in two years, will hang 20+ night and space the floor, while deferred arrival Jonas Valenciunas (beloved when he was drafted #5 over in 2011; little has changed), when not shackled by foul trouble, will use his athleticism and aggressiveness to make an impact on the boards and (in time) provide some desperately needed interior scoring. Rounding out the front line are DeMar DeRozan and Linas Kleiza (good for 4-5 30-point games; the rest of the time? Meh), Amir Johnson (a solid pro) and Ed Davis (I’ve still got faith).

For the first time in a while, there is sincere optimism surrounding the Toronto Raptors. I may be wrong, but I think that really means something, This “upswing effect,” in combination with another year under an excellent defensive coach in Dwane Casey and strength at the point guard position should be enough to not only carry the Raptors OVER 32.5 wins, but into the mix for the final playoff spot in the East.

Washington Wizards
2011-12 Record: 20-46 (14th in the East)
Key Additions: Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, A.J. Price, Trevor Ariza,
Key Departures: Andre Blatche, Rashard Lewis, Cartier Martin
Likely Rotation: John Wall, Nene, Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Martell Webster, A.J. Price

It’s just not happening here, is it?

Prior to the injuries to John Wall and Nene, there were whispers that the Wizards could emerge as a playoff sleeper. It’s debatable whether, even at full strength, this is a 32-win team. With both Wall (telling the Wasington Post “… can't run, can't jump. Can't do nothing,” isn’t terribly encouraging) and Nene on the shelf, the Wiz are left rather thin in the backcourt, with Hype RoY pick Bradley Beal, Jordan Crawford, A.J. Price and Martell Webster holding the fort. Things are slightly better up front, where Emeka Okafor, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely (raw as hell, but some outstanding tools) will man the paint.

This is a team that this summer misplayed its financial trump card (Rashard Lewis’ expiring contract and will tip off the campaign already on the verge of consumption by injury. There’s not a lot to feel great about here – the Wiz look a safe bet to fall short of 31 wins, possibly by some margin.

On a side note, the biggest bummer about the leadup to this season is the fact that, yet again, a definitive answer as to whether John Wall is a franchise player will prove elusive. At this point, whether Wall is a true cornerstone, an immensely gifted secondary piece or in need of a change of scenery is debatable. Somewhere along the line, though – probably around the time his agent demands multiple more years at eight figures a pop – the absence of definitive evidence in support of any of these arguments will begin to work against him in DC. Hopefully the decision is not made without Wall getting a say on the hardwood.

Whew!! Tired yet? Pumped for the another go-round with the Association? Yep, me too. Thanks for taking the time to swing by and casually gloss over everything in boldface. We should really meet like again some time. Until then...

Enjoy the season!

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