Sunday, November 3, 2013

Eastern Conference Rankings

The NBA season is back upon us and like anybody with a supposedly “informed” opinion on the matter, the unenviable task of ranking the teams based purely on speculation Is something we’re supposed to do. Of course, we’re already a couple of days into the season so I’m a little behind, but the sample size has been small enough that we haven’t really set any trends, so I don’t think that this will be a huge dent in my initial projections. Of course, the irony of writing this on the plane is that I, being too stingy to pay for the WiFi on the plane means that I won’t have the backing of internet research at my hands, but at the same time, I won’t have the distraction to prevent me from actually getting around to writing this post. So without further ado, let’s begin; on with the East.
1. Chicago Bulls

Look, I, with everyone else am super excited about Derrick Rose’s return. Now I remind you, that these rankings are where I anticipate each team falling in the conference standings, so essentially regular season projections. I suppose I could continue to do an overall playoff projection but, then again, I’m not entirely unbiased. One of the reasons the Bulls are up so high is simply because of Tom Thobideau’s ability to get so much more out of so little. While we can argue how Gregg Popovich has developed solid role-players out of nobody (i.e. Danny Green, Roger Mason, Gary Neal, etc…), I don’t think anyone can really deny how Tom Thobideau’s system of tenacity and grit really helps his team overachieve based on its talent if we only look as far back as the Bulls’ injury-plagued playoff run last season; beating the higher seeded Nets, then having a tough gritty out against the eventual champs, the Miami Heat. Battling without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah hobbled with plantar fasciitis, losing Luol Deng to a terrifying illness and botched spinal tap that saw him lose 15 lbs in the span of days, leaving him essentially bed-ridden, and rallying behind the unlikely heroes in Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, and Jimmy Butler. This year, despite the loss of Robinson, I’m as keen on the development of Butler as anyone, despite my staid belief contrary to popular consensus that he renders Deng obsolete, Deng, though arguably older and more injury prone, being the more complete player, especially offensively, than Butler. They boast, I would argue, one of the most complete starting lineups in the league, and while their season has gotten off to a rocky start with an opening night loss to the defending champs, Derrick Rose is quickly working back towards getting his rhythm back, and will be the game changer that the Bulls needed to trigger their offense to complement their stifling defense. With Rose healthy, While bringing back most of the old core, the starting 5 will improve as Butler continues to develop. The only major addition the Bulls had this year (besides getting Rose back from injury) was the addition of Mike Dunleavy, which I believe shores up the reserve spots for the wings, allowing for more flexibility as Thobideau (hopefully) seeks to manage his players’ regular seasons minutes a little better than he previously did. That being said, I can definitely see the Bulls, behind Rose, racing out to another league-best, or at the very least conference-best record, for home court advantage.

2. Miami Heat

Wait, the Heat are second? How does that work. I still do think they have the most talented team in the league, but that being said, they are on their quest for the fabled “threepeat” only accomplished by 2 teams since the 1990s (Jordan’s Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers), so I’d imagine that being a little more forward thinking, the Heat may be less concerned with their regular season record, especially as the regular season wears on. Not to say that they’ll have a major drop-off, but I believe that they will monitor Dwyane Wade’s health and minutes closely, which might end up costing them a couple of games, perhaps enough to drop them from the top seed to second. There is the argument, that with the Finals format moving from 2-3-2 to 2-2-1-1-1 that the Heat may be looking to secure the top seed for home court advantage. So they still remain the favorites perhaps to win the Larry O’Brien trophy again, LeBron James remains the undisputed best player on the planet, but that being said, other teams have gotten better too, and will make this fourth consecutive trip to the finals that much more difficult. Despite the loss of Mike Miller’s timely shooting and overall playmaking abilities (despite his age and injury prone status) the Heat are hoping that their plethora of “sharpshooters” (i.e. Ray Allen, Shane Battier, James Jones, Rashard Lewis) will be able to offset that. Additionally, the Heat are rolling the dice with low-risk, high-reward projects in Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. If either is able to tap into that boundless potential (both having not realized their potential for various reasons) that got them drafted second and first overall respectively in their respective drafts, then, this could be something of a coup for the Heat, landing two solid reserves for cheap. Beasley would provide a big scoring lift off the bench while Oden, if he is able to stay on the court, would provide the size and defense that most pundits said is the Heat’s most glaring weakness. They are still the team to beat, so I think most nights teams will be gunning for them, but then, I also don’t see them worrying too much about it, so despite dropping a few winnable games here and there, they’ll still be right there back in the conference finals, at the very least.

3. Indiana Pacers

One could argue that the biggest weakness of the Indiana Pacers in that last season was their bench. The combination of D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, and Ian Mahinmi underwhelmed greatly. Some would argue that they underwhelmed enough to cost them the Eastern Conference Finals. With that in mind, the Pacers’ front office made a series of off-season acquisitions to shore up said bench, acquiring the likes of C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, and Chris Copeland. Additionally, the return of Danny Granger could feasibly allow Lance Stephenson to become a sparkplug off the bench, creating some much needed scoring in the second unit. With Watson, Scola, and Stephenson coming off the pine, I would imagine that the bench now has the playmaking capability to keep Indiana in the game while keeping the starters fresh. With another year of growth from their budding All-Star pairing of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, Indiana looks better, and ready to take on the Heat. Right? While I would agree that the Pacers have addressed some of their larger concerns, and under Vogel, will continue to retain one of the league-best defenses behind the monstrosity that is Roy Hibbert, there remains a single wrinkle in this otherwise top-tier team. Playmaking. As much as Paul George has developed, he’s not a playmaker. Fortunately, between all of the players of the starting lineup, they have enough playmaking to get by on most nights, they’re just that good. However, looking at the likes of George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert, I’m not entirely convinced that they have someone that is able to get his teammates into their offense, and ultimately easy buckets. While the defense will be there, I think there will be those nights where the offense sputters and the game turns ugly. While I believe the Pacers are good enough to eke out those ugly 90-88 slugfests more often than not, I don’t think they can do it consistently enough to put them at the very top of conference, certainly not over the Heat. While I would give them a good chance to dethrone the Heat simply based on matchups, the difficulty of the Pacers in finding an offense that works efficiently will be something that will lose them games. Paul George just isn’t that guy, at least not yet.

4. New York Knicks

The Knicks are a strange and perplexing team. When you really sit down and think about it, they shouldn’t be THAT good, right? Yet, for some reason, they continue to win games. While the trade for Andrea Bargnani still remains somewhat mind-boggling, from an potential standpoint, it kind of makes sense. Bargnani is a big body that can stretch the floor. Why trade for him instead of just keeping Copeland on is beyond me (or trade Novak, arguably the best if not one of the best 3-point shooters in the league for Bargnani’s below-average 3-point shooting). Then again, that might be why I’m not the Knicks GM. The again, that might be why I might be better qualified for that position than whoever is, but of course, I’m not alone in my sentiment behind this trade. Certainly, if Bargnani regains any semblance of strong play that he had in Toronto (for that one season), we could all be looking stupid, but so far, the play that Bargnani has had has been… uninspiring at best. Uninspiring enough for the Knicks to give him 3 shot attempts before booing him (incidentally he missed all 3). That being said, the Knicks still employ the reigning scoring champ (Carmelo Anthony), Sixth Man of the Year (J.R. Smith), and a former Defensive Player of the Year (Tyson Chandler). Though older, the addition of Metta World Peace off the bench gives them some defensive grit and depth to go with the retained pieces of Kenyon Martin and Pablo Prigioni. Mike Woodson seems to have found a system that works around Melo that neither George Karl nor Mike D’Antoni could work out, a system where Melo gets his buckets, and the Knicks win games. No mean feat. The big question now, is consistency; can J.R. Smith keep up his strong play despite wanting to start or his continued antics? How much do Kenyon Martin, Metta World Peace, and Tyson Chandler have in the tank? Can Iman Shumpert at least develop into a 3-and-D player? Of course, we continually forget about him, but the biggest x-factor of all, is whether or not Amar’e Stoudemire can find any of his game back, even if it is on a minutes restriction. That being said, this is a team that won 50+ games last season, and bringing back a lot of the same crew, I think can still perform at a high enough level to keep them up in the top 4 in the Eastern Conference.

5. Brooklyn Nets

On paper, the Nets look scary. Then again, we have to remember, that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are closer to 40 than 30. That being said, the Nets are spending big bucks this year at a chance to contend for a championship. They have a star-studded roster that seems a decent mix of veterans, youth, and quality talents in their prime. Of course, the question is how they all work together. I think there are going to be some chemistry issues. Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams are all similar enough players that coexistence might be difficult. It might be easy to peg Joe Johnson as the odd man out, but I don’t know that it’s as easy as that. We all want to hand Deron Williams the keys to be “the man” but ever since he supposedly pushed Jerry Sloan out of Utah and got traded to the Nets, he hasn’t really shown us the tantalizing combination of size, control, and court-awareness that made us all wonder if perhaps he, not Chris Paul, was the best point guard in the league, that he, not Derrick Rose, was the original “Jason Kidd with a jump shot”. We can blame injuries, but there is so much talent on this team that it’s hard to not put them up top. Granted, we thought that about the Lakers last year, but still, there is nothing here that indicates that it will be an issue of personalities clashing (like Kobe and Dwight) but more of a question simply of whether or not the most talented players can coexist on the floor at the same time. Note how I haven’t even gotten around the hiring of Jason Kidd as head coach mere weeks after his retirement as a player. That being said, Kidd has the talent to work with, and hopefully his assistant staff headed by Lawrence Frank will help him implement it. The biggest key will be how well they play together and whether or not they can put aside their egos and play as a cohesive unit. Kevin Garnett will naturally bring the defense, tenacity, and intensity that the Nets sorely need, which will be good for Brook Lopez, who can just focus on scoring. Tack on a solid amount of depth and the Nets, on paper, have a very, very talented and good team. I think the most undervalued offseason acquisition though for the Nets is the all-around play of Andrei Kirilenko. If he remains healthy, he could be pivotal in making this team work. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt of Deron turned it back on this year too. All of these questions (including the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson coexistence question from last year, which I don’t think has been answered adequately) to me denotes a learning curve which will create enough hiccups for the Nets to finish just below the above, more established teams.

6. Atlanta Hawks

It’s weird, considering that they lost such a big piece in Josh Smith that the Hawks would still be in this discussion, but I’m actually a pretty big fan of the moves Danny Ferry has made this off-season. First, it began with the hiring of long-time Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, who now will make an effort to create a positive culture for the Hawks. By letting Josh Smith walk, Ferry has also essentially handed the franchise over to Al Horford, so we get to see exactly what he’s capable of. While I’m sure the Hawks are still are looking for some way to move Al Horford to a more comfortable PF slot, Paul Millsap, I think, has the capability to match most of what Josh Smith brought to the table, at least offensively. Certainly they will miss Smith’s defense and play-making, but, I believe everyone will have more of a defined role now in their new system. While the lineup definitely still looks to be something of a major work-in-progress, there is enough talent in there for them to rise up to the top of the middling teams in the Eastern Conference. I think one of the most overlooked players that will be returning from injury this season is Louis Williams, who is a premier scoring guard that will keep the Hawks bench afloat against other teams. While the roster is incomplete, I don’t think there is a sense of uncertainty or confusing within the Hawks, which oftentimes lends to players underperforming because they second-guess themselves.

7. Toronto Raptors

This prediction could change very, very quickly. Why? Simply because Masai Ujiri, last season’s executive of the year, inherited this team. While Ujiri may blow up the team, he may wait a season and see how things play out and decide where he wants to go from there. This team, as currently constructed, definitely has the talent to sneak into the playoffs. Rudy Gay is supposed to be a completely new player, now that he can see. I don’t envy Dwane Casey’s job of trying to figure out how to play three players as similar as Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Terrence Ross with each other, or at least finding the minutes for each, but with the solid, and continually underrated all-around play of Amir Johnson, and continued growth of Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas, I believe that the Raptors have a solid core. If Kyle Lowry can reign it all in and keep everyone happy, the Raptors, on any given night, can essentially compete with almost any team. However, as is always the case with a younger team, consistency is always going to be an issue. Maybe I’m just bullish on Rudy Gay’s Lasik surgery, but I think the Raptors will have a strong enough performance this season to land themselves in the playoffs. That is, if Ujiri doesn’t decide to blow up the team first.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

This last one was probably the toughest pick for me. Honestly, I’m not that hyped on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but, I suppose, like the Bulls, they were ravaged by injury last year. Unfortunately, unlike the Bulls, they neither had Tom Thobideau, nor the supporting talent to pull them anywhere near the playoffs, which worked out, as they landed another first overall pick in the draft. Unfortunately, no one really knew what to make of the 2013 draft as there was no surefire talent that sort of rose to the top. That being said, they front office definitely made a smart gamble by signing the enigmatic Andrew Bynum to an incentive-laden contract that will pay big dividends if Bynum returns to any semblance of his former self that helped the Lakers win two championships. Hopefully with a full year of Kyrie Irving and the energetic defensive play of Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers will be in good shape to start on their path back to relevance after LeBron’s departure. Bringing back Mike Brown will definitely help out, at least on the defensive end, and as the young core of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, and rookie Anthony Bennett, the Cavs not only make a playoff push this season, but show why they have a promising future to come. Of course, that gaping hole at the SF spot is something of a concern, and while we can murmur about rumors of a LeBron James return, they can figure out a way between Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee to make it work until they find something that will fit what they need. Provided they remain healthy, they will improve drastically from their 24 win 2013 season.

9. Detroit Pistons

There is one word to describe the issues that the Pistons will have this year: spacing. Despite all the talent that Joe Dumars brought in this year in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, the Pistons most talented lineup features no one that can reliably hit a shot outside of 15 feet. Not to say that Jennings and Smith won’t try. For all the talk that has been out there, this is going to come up. The paint is going to get clogged between Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond, which will encourage Smith and Jennings to take exactly the shots that we don’t want them taking: long mid-range jump shots. While hopefully their bench will provide support, there are just too many question marks for me to really give them credit. For all the hype about newcomers Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luigi “Gigi” Datome, both are still unproven in the NBA, Kyle Singler and Kim English have yet to prove themselves consistent, despite his moniker of “Mr. Big Shot”, Chauncey Billups seems to have lost his shot somewhere between New York and Los Angeles, and Charlie Villanueva is well, Charlie Villanueva. The sheer talent on this team will win them games, unfortunately, they aren’t as talented as the Nets, so it’s not enough games to overcome the number of basketball issues on the floor that this sort of roster brings up. Maybe they read this and prove me wrong. That’d be exciting.

10. Milwaukee Bucks

A team mired in mediocrity. I suppose you can’t really expect much when your big-name acquisitions of the off-season are Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino, and an over-the-hill Caron Butler. While the team lacks any sort of talent or star-power to drive them to any sort of major success, they are legitimately two deep at every position which will keep them in the conversation for one of the bottom seeds of the playoffs. Boasting a solid frontcourt rotation of Larry Sanders, John Henson, and Ersan Ilyasova , the Bucks always have enough talent to keep things interesting game to game, but not enough to make them really worth talking about late into the post-season. Maybe that’s exactly where they want to be. That’d be weird if that were true.

11. Washington Wizards

I was actually really high on the Wizards coming into this season. However, I kind of wonder whether or not Nene can stay healthy enough to make a difference in their playoff run. The sixth through eleventh seed in East I think will be decided by a relatively small margin. Additionally, I don’t know if people will realize how big of an impact Emeka Okafor made on the floor defensively, and trading him for Marcin Gortat makes me worried about perhaps the extent of Okafor’s injury. That being said, the entire season for the Washington Wizards continues to rest on the shoulders of John Wall, who has yet to show a consistent offensive game, despite flashes of brilliance towards the end of last season. With Nene hurt, the offense will rely largely on John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Trevor Ariza (though Al Harrington is kind of a big x-factor for me), and I don’t know that there is enough consistency there to pull them into the playoffs. Certainly with a degree of luck and perhaps a better-than-expected offensive game from rookie Otto Porter the Wizards, who are gunning for the playoffs this year, will be able to sneak in, but again the concern regarding the Nene’s ability to stay on the floor has me concerned, which is why I dropped them this far. Gortat’s immediate presence will definitely help, but will it be enough?

12. Charlotte Bobcats

They’ve made the playoffs once in franchise history, and have been bad ever since. Part of it seems like the Bobcats can’t catch a break, but owner Michael Jordan has shown that he’s not exactly the most savvy front office decision-maker, so hopefully he maybe just becomes more hands-off and lets Rich Cho do his job. While signing for Al Jefferson makes them more talented, I’m not entirely sure it’s going to make the Bobcats significantly better. Remember that every single team that has featured Al Jefferson as the centerpiece of the offense has not performed well (see 2007 Boston Celtics, 2008 Minnesota Timberwolves). It’s really hard to be optimistic about this team when the most notable player on this team is Gerald Henderson. We’re not sure what Cody Zeller will bring to the table, Kemba Walker, while developing, still hasn’t shown anything that would push his team further up the standings, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting is so bad that his shooting coach doesn’t really have anything nice to say about it. While Al Jefferson will get a fantasy basketball friendly 20-10 night-in and night-out, the Bobcats will still be losing those games night-in and night-out, unless Bismack Biyombo surprises me.

13. Boston Celtics

How badly the Celtics play to start off this season may determine whether or not we see Rajon Rondo suit up this season. Unfortunately for the Celtics, it’s not like they have a plethora of undeveloped youth in the mix for when Rondo comes back. Their core features the serviceable likes of Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Jeff Green, the past-his-prime likes of Gerald Wallace, and the not-worth-their-contract likes of Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee. While youngsters MarShon Brooks and Kelly Olynyck are both intriguing high-upside pieces they are unproven, as is new head coach Brad Stevens. With already questionable talent on the table, the Celtics also have no playmaker on their roster outside of Rondo, which means that their “point guards” will be Bradley and Brooks, which, well, let’s say is going to be touch-and-go at best, a complete disaster otherwise. While Rondo has expressed his desire to be “the man” in Boston, I’m not entirely sure that they have the pieces and leverage to build anything meaningful around him.

14. Orlando Magic

Last season’s league-worst team drafted arguably the front-runner for Rookie of the Year in Victor Oladipo, and with the development of young pieces like Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, and Tobias Harris, they should look to be a little better. Oladipo has shown flashes of why everyone is so high on him, which may mean that the Magic may be trying to offload some of their veteran guard rotation in Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo. However, that being said, even with the youngsters putting up numbers, they were still losing games. There’s no one on that team that can take over games. It really still feels like the Magic are trying to figure out their identity post-Dwight, and perhaps like the Cavaliers post-LeBron, it might take a couple of seasons to figure it out.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

For a team that looks designed to not win, I think there will be nights when we are surprised. Such as when the 76ers upset the Heat in their home opener (and Allen Iverson’s official retirement) behind rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who flirted with a quadruple-double in his first NBA action. I definitely don’t expect Carter-Williams to continue this sort of play, and he will hit a wall as teams adjust to his play. However, from top to bottom there just doesn’t appear to be the talent for this team to win many games. Behind new coach Brett Brown, the 76ers already have most pundits saying that they are “riggin’ for Wiggins”, and maybe that means that we get to see more of Carter-Williams, that maybe Evan Turner finally turns that corner into becoming the player he was projected to be with the second overall pick. While I like the frontcourt of Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, it’s just not enough to propel them anywhere out of the bottom, and it almost feels like it’s supposed to be that way. We don’t know when Jason Richardson will return and if he will make a difference when he does, and I honestly have just named every single player that I know on the 76ers. Unless you count Kwame. Yup, he’s still getting paid.

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