Monday, October 29, 2012

2012-2013 NBA Preview Part 1: Eastern Conference

Greetings! I know, I know... I've been a bit absent in recent days, but as any faithful reader of mine would know, the NBA is cause for a comeback! I'm going to take a different approach this year, and simply go with a massive 3-part NBA preview instead of breaking down all 30 teams in separate posts. Let's kick it off with the East (in reverse order)...

Please note that every (*) denotes bench guys that should at least be in the rotation if not challenging for starter-type minutes.

Hold on to your hats...

15) Charlotte Bobcats
  • Starting Lineup - Brendan Haywood (C), Tyrus Thomas (PF), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (SF), Gerald Henderson (SG), Kemba Walker (PG)
  • Bench - Desagana Diop (C), Byron Mullens (C/PF)*, Bismack Biyombo (PF)*, Jeffery Taylor (SF), Ben Gordon (SG)*, Reggie Williams (SG/SF), Ramon Sessions (PG)*
  • Overview - On the bright side, they won't break their own "win" percentage record from last year. In the offseason, Charlotte shipped Corey Maggette and his mediocrity to Detroit for Ben Gordon in a deal that swapped 2 wretched contracts. Gordon's deal is worse (because it's longer), but they did get a 1st-rounder from Detroit. That's a plus, and Gordon is probably the better player right now. In the backcourt, Charlotte also brought in Ramon Sessions after letting DJ Augustin walk, and that leaves them with the Sessions/Kemba/Gordon backcourt that should be a disaster defensively, but at least could spur some offense. I actually like Gerald Henderson, and he'll need to be the solid player/defender that he's been the last 2 seasons to help out the trio. The other big acquisition this off-season was the selection of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at #2 in the draft. MKG was exactly the type of guy that Charlotte didn't have last year in that he works HARD, defends very well, and finishes well with athleticism. I don't think he has the typical "upside" of the #2 overall pick, but he'll be good/solid right away, and that's a potential culture-changer that they desperately need in Charlotte. Up front, it's pretty ugly. Brendan Haywood is actually underrated at this point (because everyone kills him) but he's really bad offensively, which takes away from his plus-defense. Tyrus Thomas is an all-time bust, and every Bobcats fan is nodding right now when I say that he "is what he is" at this point. Biyombo is an all-defense/high-athleticism guy who can't play offense at all at this point and is crazily raw. Mullens is the only front-court guy with any scoring ability, but he off-sets his great shooting with subpar defense and bad rebounding. Go 'Cats!
  • X-Factor - Biyombo. As mentioned above, I think we kind of know what to expect from Kidd-Gilchrist, but Biyombo (the 2011 lottery pick) is interesting. He averaged 6 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks a game in just 23 minutes last season, which lends you to think that he'll be a defensive force, and he will be in time. That said, the rebounding isn't great yet (at least not when you see the athleticism, wow) and his offensive game is... a project. He has really bad hands, no post moves, and he's an awful shooter. Sounds great, right? At any rate, he's very, very young (20 years old this year), and a little offensive polish could make him a real contributor this year. He's their best bet for a "breakout" guy. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Biyombo finishes top-5 in the league in blocks per game. No one on the Bobcats averages even 15 points a game. Kidd-Gilchrist leads the team in a PER as a rookie... with around a 15. Yikes.
  • Projected Record - 14-68
14) Orlando Magic
  • Starting Lineup - Nikola Vucevic (C), Glen Davis (PF), Hedo Turkoglu (SF), Arron Afflalo (SG), Jameer Nelson (PG)
  • Bench - Gustavo Ayon (PF/C)*, Al Harrington (PF/SF)*, Josh McRoberts (PF)*, Justin Harper (SF/PF), Andrew Nicholson (SF)*, Quentin Richardson (SF/SG)*, Mo Harkless (SF), JJ Redick (SG)*, Ishmael Smith (PG)*
  • Overview - Remember when Orlando was good? I can't emphasize the impact of Dwight Howard enough and he's not walking through that door. That loss would be enough in itself, but to also have Ryan Anderson depart, and openly choose to bring back Jameer Nelson? Godspeed, Orlando! On the bright side, they have a few guys that I enjoy. Arron Afflalo is the best player on the team, and while that's not an ideal role for him by any stretch, but are there really more than 7-8 shooting guards in the league that you'd rather have? His backup, JJ Redick, will be woefully underused on this team, and that's a shame as his efficiency continues to increase, and he should really be, if not a starter somewhere, a 6th man. Surrounding those 2 guys are a collection of mediocre/average veterans like Turkoglu, Harrington, Richardson, and Nelson, who could all be rotation guys on decent teams, but none of them are 3rd/4th options at this point, and that's what they're being asked to be. Glen Davis had a big-time statistical emergence after Dwight Howard went down last year, averaging 16 and 9 in April and 19 and 9 in their 5 playoff games. He's probably not capable of that over a full season, but with Anderson/Howard gone, he's their only frontcourt scorer and he'll need to get 15 a night. The bench is also interesting. Their best 4 bench guys outside of Redick are between 6'8 and 6'10, and all of them do similar things. We know Harrington will play, but will we see Andrew Nicholson (this year's 1st-rounder)? I really like Josh McRoberts, but they also brought in Gustavo Ayon? Lots of questions here, but one thing is clear, and it is that Orlando is in trouble for 2012-13. 
  • X-Factor - Vucevic. As the only 7-footer on the roster, he's going to be counted on to play significant minutes for the first time in his career. The issue with him, however, is that he likes to float on the perimeter, and despite posting a decent rebound rate (12 per 40 minutes). If he's a capable NBA center (the comparison I keep hearing is Spencer Hawes), then Orlando could be better than this, but if he struggles, there's no one behind him at the 5. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Redick finally gets traded and ends up in a good situation. Afflalo "struggles" as the #1 option, but still averages 15 a game. Glen Davis is the poster boy for this year's "good stats, bad team" list.
  • Projected Record - 17-65
13) Detroit Pistons
  • Starting Lineup - Greg Monroe (C), Jonas Jerebko (PF/SF), Tayshaun Prince (SF), Rodney Stuckey (SG), Brandon Knight (PG) 
  • Bench - Andre Drummond (C)*, Charlie Villanueva (PF)*, Jason Maxiell (PF), Corey Maggette (SF/PF)*, Austin Daye (SF), Kyle Singler (SF), Kim English (SG), Will Bynum (PG)
  • Overview - First, the positives. I really enjoy the work of Greg Monroe. He averaged 15 and 10 in his second season, while posting a gawdy PER of over 22. He's a great passer for a big, has a fundamentally sound post game, and scores efficiently. There's some question about his defensive D on the help side because he's not a great athlete and can't block shots, but he's on the verge of stardom and is already a semi-elite big man. After that? The questions begin. Rodney Stuckey had the best year of his career in 2011-12 as they finally moved him off the ball and realized he's a shooting guard. My long, national nightmare of blasting Stuckey should be over. It's been fun. Brandon Knight is a shoot-first point guard as well, and not the best fit with Stuckey, but I've been a fan of Knight's and he was better as a rookie (13 points, 4 assists per) than I thought he'd be. The forward situation is a mess. Corey Maggette and Tayshaun Prince are vets that are past their primes. However, both can still contribute as Maggette's ability to score and get to the line is valuable, and Prince is still a good, long defender. Villanueva is a contract casualty that's basically been buried in Detroit despite his admittedly potent skills. Jerebko is a wild card, and while it wouldn't surprise me at all if he's the best forward on the team, he seems injury prone and raw still. Did I mention that they also have Jason Maxiell, Kyle Singler (who I like, but come on), and the 180-pound Austin Daye? Hallelujah! One more achilles heel for Detroit is their lack of depth in the backcourt. Rookie Kim English and Will Bynum are the only backup "guards" on the roster, making it a fact that Detroit does not employ an actual point guard or really even a prototypical 2-guard with any NBA experience. That's an issue. A final note is on Andre Drummond. The rookie center has drawn Dwight Howard comparisons for his athleticism/frame, but he was awful at times at UConn and is a classic "potential" pick rather than taking into account how he's never actually played well anywhere. He could be an elite center in this league if EVERYTHING clicks, but for now, he's a bit player at best.
  • X-Factor - Knight. The only way I can see Detroit rising to a playoff threat this season is if Knight makes a leap and becomes a top-15 point guard in year two. I don't see it, but he's the most talented guy on the team not named "Monroe" or maybe "Stuckey", and the only guy with upside like that for this season. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Stuckey leads the team in scoring at over 18 a game. For the second straight year, no Detroit Piston averages 4 assists a game. Monroe leads all centers in steals, and has over 100 on the season.
  • Projected Record - 25-57
12) Washington Wizards
  • Starting Lineup - Nene (C), Emeka Okafor (PF), Trevor Ariza (SF), Bradley Beal (SG), John Wall (PG)* Injured
  • Bench - Kevin Seraphin (C), Trevor Booker (PF/C)*, Jan Vesely (SF/PF)*, Chris Singleton (SF), Cartier Martin (SG/SF), Jordan Crawford (SG)*, Martell Webster (SG), AJ Price (PG)*, Shelvin Mack (PG)
  • Overview - This is a team that has some directional issues. They mortgaged their future in the offseason by dealing Rashard Lewis and that huge expiring contract for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. In the immediate, this makes them a much, much better basketball team in 2012-13 then they would've been without the deal, but it screws up their cap room royally for next summer, and this team still has a fringe playoff-team ceiling. Congrats! At any rate, John Wall is the best player on the roster, but he'll miss the first month or so with a left knee injury. I'm not worried about Wall's knee long-term at all, and I actually this could be the year that he breaks out. He's the Josh Smith of guards in that he's good-to-great at virtually everything on a basketball EXCEPT for shooting jump shots... and yet, he shoots a ton of jump shots. Even with that, he still averaged 16/8/5 with 2 steals a game while being surrounded by that God-awful supporting cast last year. This year, with some consummate pros around him, should help ease things a bit. Nene returns after being acquired in the mid-season deal for McGee and while he's not the double-double guy that many think he is, he's very good when he's aggressive offensively and he's a very good defender. Okafor and Ariza both have faults (size/durability for Okafor, a bad jumper for Ariza) but both guys are plus-defenders and that should help out up front. The front-court is really pretty solid, but the backcourt is where questions arise. In the early games without Wall, the point guard situation is a disaster with AJ Price being below-average and Mack being a fringy combo guard. On the wing, Bradley Beal is a guy I really, really like as an offensive player and a shooter, but can he really be counted on for much as a young rookie coming off an average freshman year in college? Ariza won't add much in consistent scoring, and behind those two guys, you have Jordan Crawford, who is a human black hole. Jan Vesely has talent and a high pedigree as a lottery pick last year, but he's kind of a tweener and he's a pretty bad offensive player at times. The real issue with this team is offense, and it's just enough, combined with injury issues for Wall and Nene, to keep them out of the playoffs. 
  • X-Factor - Beal. There's a ton of pressure on Beal as the #3 pick in the draft to step in right away and be the offensive running mate that John Wall needs. He's capable of this from a talent standpoint, but it's a big stretch to go from a decent college season to a starting two-guard with expectations in the league. I think he really reminds me of a healthy Eric Gordon in the future, but I wouldn't expect that this year, at least not early in the season. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - John Wall finishes in the top-5 in assists per game. Nene and Okafor miss a combined 50+ games. Trevor Ariza shoots 200+ threes... and makes 30% of them. 
  • Projected Record - 33-49
11) Toronto Raptors
  • Starting Lineup - Jonas Valanciunas (C), Andrea Bargnani (PF), DeMar DeRozan (SF), Terrence Ross (SG), Kyle Lowry (PG)
  • Bench - Amir Johnson (PF/C)*, Ed Davis (PF/C)*, Quincy Acy (PF), Linas Kleiza (SF)*, Dominic McGuire (SF), Landry Fields (SG/SF)*, Jose Calderon (PG)*, John Lucas III (PG/SG)
  • Overview - This is a team that should be better. The talent infusion is marked from last year after finally getting Jonas Valanciunas into town and acquiring Kyle Lowry from Houston. Lowry is a personal favorite of mine, a ball-hawking defender who is capable of gawdy point/assist numbers as well. I love him. If Valanciunas is as good as advertised, this ranking is low, but forgive me for not fully believing the hype on a 20-year-old rookie from Lithuania who I've never seen. Andrea Bargnani is who he is at this point, and that is a 7-footer with a jokingly bad rebound rate who will score 18-20 a night, make 100 threes on the season, and can't defend anyone. He's a nice player, but he'll never live up to his #1 overall pick status. On the wing, the jury is out. I am pretty high on DeRozan. He averaged 16 a game last season, but if you remove a God-awful January that saw him fall in love with his jumper, it's more like 18 a game on 44% shooting. I'll take that, along with the fact that he has nice defensive make-up and athleticism. Terrence Ross was unquestionably a reach where they took him in the draft, but was always a favorite of mine at Washington, and I think he could be an NBA starter, albeit not right away. The bench is actually decent. Amir Johnson is famous for getting a God-awful mid-level exception contract, but he's a league-average guy who can really rebound. Ed Davis is a bust, but again, can be a contributor thanks to the fact that he's a great shot-blocker and a good rebounder. Both guys should supplement Bargnani in making up for what he can't do. On the perimeter, Kleiza, Fields, and Calderon is about as good of a bench trio as you'll find in the league. All 3 guys have been starter-level players in their careers, and Calderon, in particular, should see a spike in production as his minutes are limited and his defensive issues can be masked a bit more. In the end, Toronto could be a fringe playoff team if Valanciunas is good, but until he proves it, I can't take them there.
  • X-Factor - Since we discussed Valanciunas at length, I'll say DeRozan. If he's the guy from the 2nd half of last season that realizes his jump shot limitations and attacks the rim at will, he's a very, very valuable player who can lead them on the wing. If he jacks jumpers (badly), they're going to struggle. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Valanciunas gets bust talk early in the season, but adjusts and shows himself to be on the come down the stretch. Bargnani averages 18 and 5 (this isn't bold, I'm just saying). Lowry and Calderon combine for 15 assists a game. 
  • Projected Record - 35-47
10) Milwaukee Bucks
  • Starting Lineup - Samuel Dalembert (C), Ersan Ilyasova (PF), Tobias Harris (SF), Monta Ellis (SG), Brandon Jennings (PG)
  • Bench - Ekpe Udoh (C)*, Larry Sanders (PF)*, Drew Gooden (PF)*, John Henson (PF/SF), Mike Dunleavy (SF)*, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (SF/PF), Doron Lamb (SG)*, Beno Udrih (PG)*
  • Overview - This is a team I'm probably lower on than most people. I'll address my biggest concern first in that I firmly don't believe in the core backcourt of Ellis and Jennings. I don't think the two of them mesh well together at all and defensively, it's going to be a disaster. Offensively, neither guy averaged even 6 assists a game last year despite both guys dominating the ball on separate teams. In addition, Jennings has fallen into taking nearly 6 threes a game, and is a career 39% shooter from the field. That's Allen Iverson territory, and not in a good way. Defensively, Ellis playing the 2-guard spot is never an "easy" fit defensively because he's a ghastly defender at any rate, but pairing him with the very small Jennings (who actually isn't a disaster defensively) gives them no size against 2-guards and whoever they choose to put Ellis on will do whatever they want. Hilariously, I can't think of a worse fit for a Scott Skiles team than these two guys, and it's going to be tremendous theater. The bright spot, obviously, is that they can pretty much pencil in 38-40 points a game from their starting backcourt, and there aren't many teams that feature that kind of firepower. Elsewhere, I actually loved the Dalembert acquisition, as it allows them to move Gooden away from Center and Dalembert provides a big-time rebounder/defender in the middle to help out the bad perimeter defense. Udoh and Sanders also give solid depth up front and that's not a weakness that it has been. Ilyasova signed for $40 million and that's an overpayment in my estimation, but he was very good in 2011-12 and if he performs at that level, it's solid. The rest of the wing is pretty interesting. They've been starting Tobias Harris in preseason games and he may be getting the nod at the small forward spot. He's a guy I enjoyed in college, but the jury is out. Dunleavy and Mbah a Moute are veterans with defined skill sets as Dunleavy can score/shoot while Luc Richard can't get his shot at all but is an all-world defender. Beno Udrih as the 3rd guard would be solid, but again, he's SO bad defensively that that problem will persist from the starters. 
  • X-Factor - Other than the backcourt dynamic, I'd say it's Ilyasova. This guy averaged 14 and 9 last year with a PER over 20 including a crazy post-all star game run where he averaged 16 and 9 on 55% shooting. If this is the real thing and not just a contract push, this is probably low for Milwaukee, but they'll need him to produce like that going forward to be a playoff contender.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Milwaukee will lead the league in starting backcourt scoring... and layups allowed. Ilyasova takes a step back and averages 11 and 7. Monta Ellis and/or Brandon Jennings are in the middle of trade rumors by January. 
  • Projected Record - 36-46
9) Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Starting Lineup - Anderson Varajeo (C), Tristan Thompson (PF), Omri Casspi (SF), CJ Miles (SG), Kyrie Irving (PG)
  • Bench - Tyler Zeller (C)*, Jon Leuer (PF)*, Samardo Samuels (PF), Alonzo Gee (SF)*, Luke Walton (SF), Kelenna Azubuike (SF), Dion Waiters (SG)*, Daniel Gibson (SG), Donald Sloan (PG), Jeremy Pargo (PG) 
  • Overview - This (optimistic) ranking is about one thing. Kyrie Irving. If you asked me for the list of point guards that I'd want to start a team with right now, the list would only include 3 guys before it got to Irving. Paul, Westbrook, Williams. That's it. Kyrie averaged 19 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds with a 47/40/87 slash line last year. Oh, and he had a PER of 21.49. AS A ROOKIE! The guy is a franchise building block, and he gets the benefit of the doubt from me. Surrounding him, it gets a bit more dicey. I love Varajeo and he averaged 11 points and 12 boards a game while he was actually healthy last year, but they'll need him for the full campaign this season as he anchors that back line as the only real veteran presence. The biggest issue for Cleveland? Lack of a #2 option. There are a couple of young options that could develop but there's some real projection to be done to get to them to that level. First, 2nd-year forward Tristan Thompson is coming off a rookie year where he only averaged 8 points and 7 boards with a 13.37 PER. On the bright side for Cavs fans, Thompson is multi-talented, and played better as the season went along, averaging over 9 points and 7 boards per game after the break at just 20 years old for most of the year. The down side? He was already playing significant minutes last year, so any big-time jump in production wouldn't coincide with an easy increase in minutes. Secondly, this year's lottery pick, guard Dion Waiters, is a pure scorer out of Syracuse that could infuse some life into the offense. He's gotten a ton of Dwayne Wade comparisons coming out as a super-athletic 6'4 two-guard that can attack the rim. With that said, he's a raw rookie and likely won't play starter's minutes this season. Third, they have another high pick in UNC's Tyler Zeller. He'll likely come off the bench all year behind Varajeo and Thompson, but is probably the most skilled offensive player of the three right away. The wing is a bit of a black hole for Cleveland. After Waiters, the perimeter is filled with journeymen and there's really no upside. Alonzo Gee and Omri Casspi are the likely guys at the 3 spot and while I actually think both guys can be rotation players in the league, neither is someone you want starting at the 3. The 2-guard spot is even more of a mess unless Waiters steps up, as CJ Miles and Daniel Gibson are both bench guys thrust into more prominent roles. As I said already, having Cleveland this high is mostly about Irving, and a little bit of a nod to Varajeo and Thompson. Here we go. 
  • X-Factor - Thompson. For this projection to work out, Irving just has to duplicate last year, but Thompson has to actually make a leap in production. The runner-up? Waiters, who could honestly be a 15-point-a-game guy if given the right opportunity.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Tristan Thompson wins the Most Improved Player award. Varajeo averages a double-double. Kyrie makes the jump to 21/7/5 and is a consensus top-15 player. No swingman (SF or SG) on the roster averages 10 points a game. 
  • Projected Record - 38-44
8) Atlanta Hawks
  • Starting Lineup - Al Horford (C), Josh Smith (SF), Kyle Korver (SF), Devin Harris (G), Jeff Teague (PG)
  • Bench - Zaza Pachulia (C)*, Johan Petro (C), Anthony Tolliver (PF), Ivan Johnson (PF)*, Mike Scott (PF), Deshawn Stevenson (SF)*, Anthony Morrow (SG)*, Lou Williams (SG/PG)*, John Jenkins (SG), 
  • Overview - First of all, I could do 5,000 on words on the Hawks but I won't do that here. Feel free to check out to see me and the other guys from the FanSided Network cover the Hawks in a very in-depth way this season (that's my one plug for the day). With that said, he's an overview. Al Horford and Josh Smith are good at basketball. If there's anything I actually know about the 2012-13 Hawks, it's that. Horford remains an elite option at center (I know, I know, he's not a center, blah blah blah) and Smith, in a contract year no less, stuffs box scores like very few in the league do. I could give you the dissertation on how important Al Horford is, how he's the best player on the team, and how his appearance in a full-season actually mitigates the loss of Joe Johnson after Horford missed all of last year. I could give you 1,000 words simply on Josh Smith's horrid shot selection and how if he stopped shooting long 2-point jump shots, he'd be a no-doubt all-star (notice I didn't even mention threes). The thing is: you know all of that, or at least I hope you do. The rest of the roster/rotation make-up is a bit uncertain. The 3rd best player on the team is Lou Williams, the former South Gwinnett HS product who's signed for the mid-level from Philly. The issue with Williams is that he's a combo guard who's probably better suited to come off of the bench (at least in the opinion of Larry Drew and Doug Collins). Williams is a very, very efficient scorer for a guard, and he'll probably be 2nd on the team in scoring behind Smith as long as LD plays him enough to give him that opportunity. After that, the 4th and 5th "best" players on team are the two point guards: Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. I've heard it argued about all off-season about who's better among the two (I'd take Harris), but in truth, it actually doesn't matter. The make-up of the Hawks backcourt from a basketball standpoint is pretty awful. Williams/Harris/Teague are all between 6'1 and 6'4, none can really guard opposing two guards, and none are true pass-first point guards in the distribution sense. Awesome! I'd expect all 3 to play 25+ minutes a night unless there's a move made in-season and the remaining minutes in the backcourt will go to Morrow with Jenkins likely on the bench, at least at the beginning of the year. The wing is pretty ugly. Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow are both one-dimensional guys. On the bright side, that dimension is absolutely lights-out shooting as both guys are top-10 shooters in the whole league. That said, they are both lacking defensively and ideally wouldn't be primary options on the wing. The other major wing option is Deshawn Stevenson, who is easily the best wing defender on the roster (mostly by default), but hasn't posted a PER over 10 (which is bad anyway) since 2007-2008 and actually performed at a hilariously bad 4.33 rating last season. He's not particularly good. The front-court depth is actually reasonable after Ivan Johnson accepted a qualifying offer and the Hawks were able to add Anthony Tolliver in free agency. Combine those reasonable backup options with Zaza Pachulia in the final year of his contract, and the front-court isn't bad behind Smith and Horford. Johan Petro and Mike Scott fill out the roster with bodies, but it'd be a bad sign if either one played major minutes. What does it all mean? This is supposed to be a transition year for the Hawks, but if you take a look at the actual roster make-up and realize that Horford and Smith are still around, this is a fringe playoff contender despite being in a full rebuild. That's kind of nice. I'm fully intrigued to see how Drew handles the Williams/Teague/Harris conundrum on the wing, but one thing is for sure, the Hawks won't be as bad as people would've thought when they jettisoned Joe Johnson.
  • X-Factor - It's always Josh Smith, isn't it? If I could have Josh Smith in a room for 5 minutes, all I would do with him is plead for him to stop shooing mid-to-long range 2-point jump shots. I wouldn't even MENTION his propensity to shoot the 3-ball. Why, you ask? Well, last season, Smith shot 68% at the rim, and didn't break 40% at any other location on the court. If he shoots 26% from 3 and takes less than 2 threes a game (like he did last season), I will live with that, but if he continues to shoot 35-ish% from 15+ feet and takes nearly SEVEN of them a game? That's a much bigger issue. For every 10 three point attempts at that percentage, he would generate 7.8 points. For every 10 two point attempts at that rate, that generates 7.0 points and he's taking MORE of those by almost 4x. It's an issue, and I'd hope, in a contract  year, that someone that he trusts would force that information into his head. Done and done. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Josh Smith shot 1.7 threes per game last season. This season, that number jumps above 2.0 and near 2.5. Devin Harris posts a higher PER than Jeff Teague. John Jenkins gets buried on the bench. Al Horford averages 17 points (career-high) and 10 rebounds (career-high) with a PER above 21 (career high).
  • Projected Record - 41-41
7) Chicago Bulls
  • Starting Lineup - Joakim Noah (C), Carlos Boozer (PF), Luol Deng (SF), Richard Hamilton (SG), Derrick Rose (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Nazr Mohammed (C)*, Taj Gibson (PF)*, Vlad Radmanovic (SF/PF), Jimmy Butler (SF), Marco Belinelli (SG)*, Nate Robinson (SG/PG), Kirk Hinrich (PG/SG)*, Marquis Teague (PG)*
  • Overview - It's one of the great debates of the NBA "preview" scene. What in the world do we do with the Bulls? If you were asleep from April until now, Derrick Rose blew out his knee in the playoffs and will enter this season on the shelf. There is debate on when he'll arrive, but I think it would be pretty optimistic to project him for more than 20-25 games played this season. If he's healthy? This is a top-3 contender in the East, but without him, their backcourt is pretty barren. We'll come back to that. In the front-court, Chicago is still pretty loaded. There aren't many teams that can match the trio of Noah/Boozer/Gibson and that's a plus. The Bulls will certainly miss Omer Asik after declining his offer sheet and allowing him to walk to Houston. Asik is an absolutely elite defensive center than anchored that second-team defense, but Nazr Mohammed isn't a bad player, and the Asik loss will only be a crushing blow if Noah can't stay on the court. I absolutely love Taj Gibson and think he should be somewhere where he's playing more, and in fact, there's an argument to be made that he's better than Carlos Boozer. Speaking of Boozer, he'll be relied upon for scoring while Rose is out, and maybe we'll see an uptick to more of his Utah numbers now that he's an unquestioned #1 or #2 option again. Luol Deng is one of the more versatile and multi-faceted players in the league and I love what he brings. He enters the season with concerns about his wrist that plagued him last season, and after posting a career-low PER last year with that wrist problem, that's warranted, but Deng is an elite wing defender, and they're going to also need him to score 15+ a night this year. The aforementioned backcourt is a bit unclear. Richard Hamilton is the penciled-in starter at the 2 but he had the worst year of his career after moving to Chi-Town last season. Hamilton is a unique offensive player who's mid-range game is his calling card and he loves to use screens and curls. The offense, with Rose, didn't match his talents, but maybe the injury to Rose, and the resulting move away from reliance on him, will help Hamilton get loose. Kirk Hinrich and rookie Marquis Teague will handle the point guard responsibilities until Rose returns. I love Hinrich irrationally, but there's no denying that he isn't the same caliber of player that he was when he was in Chicago last time. He'll have trouble guarding some opposing point guards, but can contribute still. Teague was a steal in my opinion at #29 but again, it's tough to pencil in a rookie, non-lottery guy into a prominent role running the show. The rest of the bench is kind of funny. Chicago's bench (and bench defense, specifically) was a calling card last season, but with Asik, Korver, Brewer, and Watson all gone, it's a new cast. I wouldn't suggest that Radmanovic, Belinelli and Robinson are defensive players at all, but they'll need something out of at least 2 of those guys. I hated the Belinelli and VladRad moves because they don't match the system, but Nate Robinson was actually (gasp) good last year in Golden State, and that's a nice spark plug. Jimmy Butler could be the X-factor of the bench as he's really the only guy on the wing behind Deng that can guard a soul, and with Deng's injury possibilities, we may see a lot of the young guy from Marquette. 
  • X-Factor - I've tried to avoid the "obvious" choices for this segment, but it's Rose. If Chicago can tread water for 50-60 games, an even 80% Rose could push them into the playoffs for the final 20-30 games. If he doesn't come back at all? I don't think they make the playoffs. It's as simple as that. My second choice would be Boozer for the reasons mentioned above, as they really need a 20-point scorer, and he's the only choice. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Boozer averages 19 and 10 with a PER over 20. Deng plays 75+ games despite the wrist injury. Taj Gibson finishes top-5 in the most improved player voting (despite being the same guy he was last year). Marco Belinelli is out of the league after this season, and never returns. 
  • Projected Record - 42-40
6) New York Knicks
  • Starting Lineup - Tyson Chandler (C), Amare Stoudemire (PF), Carmelo Anthony (SF), JR Smith (SG), Raymond Felton (PG)
  • Bench - Marcus Camby (C)*, Rasheed Wallace (C/PF), Kurt Thomas (PF)*, Steve Novak (SF)*, James White (SF), Ronnie Brewer (SG), Iman Shumpert (SG)*, Jason Kidd (PG)*, Pablo Prigioni (PG)
  • Overview - Well, the Knicks are old. Flat-out, no-holds-barred old. In fact, they are the oldest team in league history after signing Rasheed Wallace to a 1-year, minimum contract. I'd absolutely say that that is an issue simply because you can't trust health to hold up over 82 games with guys like Kidd, Camby, and Wallace, but is it the biggest issue? I say no. The biggest issue with this team is that the "best" 2 players (we'll get to that) are a TERRIBLE match for each other. Carmelo Anthony is a ball-stopping forward who is one of the best scorers in the league and an above-average rebounder, but provides little defensively and can't distribute the ball. Also, he's probably best suited in today's game to be playing significant minutes at the 4 spot. Amare is an offense-only guy who can't really play center, can't pass, and is the one of the worst defensive bigs in the entire league. In addition? This isn't the same Amare that we're thinking of with the Suns because the burst simply isn't there, and he posted his lowest PER of his career last season with a just slightly above-average 17.8. His scoring rate is down, his field goal percentage is down, he's an average rebounder and nothing more, and his turnover rate is more than DOUBLE his assist rate. Frankly, Amare isn't a guy I want playing significant minutes for me unless the rest of the team fits perfectly to him, and that's not the case here. Okay, enough of that... the backcourt is also a question mark. Ray Felton was abysmal in Portland last year (before and after he helped orchestrate the revolt on Nate McMillan), JR Smith is absolutely insane and despite being one of the most talented guys in the league (30-foot range, crazy athlete), has some of the worst shot selection imaginable, and isn't a guy you'd want as your starting 2-guard. Behind them, Jason Kidd is virtually washed up, although not a bad option for 20 minutes a night, Iman Shumpert was a nice surprise as a rookie but started picking up some JR Smith shot selection tendencies, and Ronnie Brewer is basically a defense-only player. I do like Steve Novak as a role player because he's so long and can flat-out shoot it, but the perimeter is pretty questionable. Tyson Chandler is back and ready to hold down the middle defensively. He's still vastly underrated nationally simply because people don't value defense as they should, but making up for Amare is a task unto itself. I loved the Camby pick-up as he can still go and get it when he's healthy, and Kurt Thomas is a perfect end-of-bench option as a defender/veteran. The Rasheed signing made me laugh, but (huge asterisk here), if he was actually in shape, I'd co-sign that move as a no-risk decision that could pay off. In the end, I don't think this team can stay healthy, and if even if they do, the backcourt deficiency and the Amare/Melo duo can only go so far. 
  • X-Factor - The Power Forward Conundrum. If you talked to any league "expert", I'd imagine about 90% of them would agree with this sentiment. Amare should come off the bench. Hear me out... Carmelo starts at the 4 next to Chandler, and Amare heads up the second unit. Mike Woodson (cut to a shot of Mike drawing up a play on his couch in the morning) can then use Amare as the unquestioned "go-to-guy" of the second unit, run the offense through him whenever Melo is off the court, and I think you'd get max value out of both guys. Do you then play Amare and Melo together in crunchtime? Maybe, but that's a match-up decision and there's a real argument to be made that the best lineup that NYK could trot out doesn't include Mr. Stoudemire. Discuss.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - JR Smith leads the league in 3-point attempts. Ray Felton is still washed-up and the Knicks are trotting out J-Kidd for 30+ minutes a game by January. Tyson Chandler will deserve to repeat as defensive player of the year but won't.
  • Projected Record - 44-38
5) Philadelphia 76ers
  • Starting Lineup - Andrew Bynum (C), Thaddeus Young (PF), Evan Turner (SF), Jason Richardson (SG), Jrue Holiday (PG)
  • Bench - Kwame Brown (C)*, Spencer Hawes (PF/C)*, Lavoy Allen (PF), Dorell Wright (SF), Nick Young (SG)*, Royal Ivey (PG), Maalik Wayns (PG)
  • Overview - The new-look Sixers are getting considerable buzz this year. My advice? Calm down a bit. The reason? I. do. not. trust. Andrew. Bynum. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I don't want my best player to be someone that a) has a documented injury history, weighs 290 pounds, AND has a current knee injury that has him taking injections, b) has played 66+ games exactly once in his career, and c) is a lunatic. Okay, so "c" is subjective, but there's evidence that Bynum is a bit of a crazy person on top of everything else, and that can't be ignored. If Bynum is the same guy as he was in LA (read: very good, and healthy), Philly will probably have home-court advantage in the East for at least a series, but I don't believe it. On the wing, Andre Iguodala was jettisoned in the summer and Lou Williams (he of the 20+ PER last season) left in free agency for Atlanta. This leaves an absolutely massive burder on Evan Turner. Turner took a modest step forward in 2012, increasing his averages and efficiency across the board from a subpar rookie season, but he'll need to be noticeably better to justify this ranking. I really, really like Thad Young, and he now has a clear path at the power forward position, which I believe is his better spot, especially in this smaller, faster league. The other "stud" is point guard Jrue Holiday, and although Holiday is just 22 years old, he's a vet at this point, and he'll be relied on big-time. The scoring load is really an issue on this current team, but Philly did at least go out and employ a few bench guys that can put the ball through the rim. Jason Richardson and Nick Young were both brought in and while Young can only score and nothing else, I think they'll get an angry Richardson with something to prove this season. The front-court depth is actually solid with both Kwame Brown (who really isn't as bad as everyone thinks he is) and Spencer Hawes providing size and in the case of Hawes, a nice skill set. This all comes down to Bynum, but if he's the guy that Philly thinks he is, they'll be looking to their supporting guys to step up.
  • X-Factor - Besides Bynum, I'll go with Turner. As the #2 pick in the draft AND with Iguodala being gone, the expectations for Turner are huge this season, and his pedigree would suggest that he can step up. However, I've never seen a star in Turner at all, and while he's a guy I'd like to have for his versatility, he's never going to be a guy who you'd want as your #2 or even #3 option offensively. There's an argument to be made for Thad Young too, as he's finally getting the exposure increase that some Philly fans have clamored for. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - No one outside of Bynum averages 15 points a game. Yes, fifteen. Bynum misses 30+ games. Jrue Holiday takes a mini-leap to the second-tier of point guards and averages a 14/8/5 with 2 steals a game.
  • Projected Record - 45-37

4) Brooklyn Nets
  • Starting Lineup - Brook Lopez (C), Kris Humphries (PF), Gerald Wallace (SF), Joe Johnson (SG), Deron Williams (PG)
  • Bench - Andray Blatche (C)*, Reggie Evans (PF), Josh Childress (SF), Mirza Teletovic (F), Marshon Brooks (SG)*, CJ Watson (PG)*
  • Overview - It's kind of jarring to see the Nets this high, huh? This is a pretty talented roster, and in the midst of all of the "who's better: Knicks or Nets?!" talk, I don't see it is as particularly close. The Nets have a complete starting five with no real weaknesses, and their bench signings weren't terrible either. I'm not in love with Brook Lopez and they vastly overpaid for him by any estimate, but it's not my money, and he's still an above average center even when he doesn't rebound. On the bright side, all Kris Humphries does is rebound, so that offsets Lopez's weakness a bit, and with Gerald Wallace as a ballhawk with nearly 7 boards a game for his career, that helps as well. I love the Joe Johnson/Deron Williams backcourt. There's no need in even discussing the contract because it doesn't matter from a basketball standpoint, but Joe Johnson is still a top-5 shooting guard in the league, and with the blessing of Williams to actually (gasp) create something for him, I think you'll get the best of Johnson this year. Speaking of Williams, there were once actual discussions (even if I never bought in) that he was better than Chris Paul. Chris Paul! That tells you how good Williams can be, and now with a quality roster around him, he'll return to Utah-type form and cause debates about who is the 2nd-best point guard in the league, at least. If there is one deficiency about Brooklyn, it is certainly defensively. The only two guys in the starting 5 that I would characterize as even average defensively are Wallace and Johnson, and neither of them is as good as they used to be on that end. The bench won't help too much with that either as Brooks and Blatche are glaring holes, and Evans/Childress aren't good enough to get on the court too much anyway. Still, this team is absolutely going to put up points, and I think it's one of the better rosters in the conference. 
  • X-Factor - Brook Lopez. After playing all 82 games in each of his first 3 seasons, Lopez crashed to just 5 games played last year. I don't think there is a significant concern about Lopez's durability, but you have to mention it after last year. The bigger issue? He HAS to rebound the ball. In his last full season (2010-11), he averaged 6.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. For reference, that was worse than such rebounding stalwarts as James Harden, Marquis Daniels, OJ Mayo, Stephen Curry, and Vince Carter. Take that for what you will. In addition, Lopez is a ghastly defender at times, and will need to at least be average for Brooklyn to be a real threat. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Joe Johnson posts his highest PER since at least 2009-10 (when he had a 19.3 rating). Deron Williams averages double-digit assists. Andray Blatche emerges as a reasonably decent bench guy under the direction of Avery Johnson and ends up playing 25 minutes a night with reasonable percentages, maybe even averaging double-digit points (this is the boldest prediction). 
  • Projected Record - 49-33

3) Boston Celtics
  • Starting Lineup - Kevin Garnett (C), Brandon Bass (PF), Paul Pierce (SF), Courtney Lee (SG), Rajon Rondo (PG)
  • Bench - Fab Melo (C), Jason Collins (C), Jared Sullinger (PF)*, Chris Wilcox (PF), Jeff Green* (SF/PF), Jason Terry (SG)*, Keyon Dooling (SG), Avery Bradley (SG/PG)*
  • Overview - Well, this is certainly an interesting roster. The usual suspects are back with the exception of Ray Allen, and on paper, this is a significantly deeper/better team than last year. First, Rondo has established himself as an elite point guard and is the best player on this team at this point, at least when referencing season-long production. I'd say they need a slight uptick from Rondo in point production, but I'd settle for improved free throw shooting and a reasonable efficiency number on his at-times hideous jump shot. Kevin Garnett is still an absolutely elite big man in this league when he's right health-wise, but he can't be expected to play at that level for 82 games at his current age/wear-and-tear and the same goes for Pierce on the wing. On the bright side? The depth situation this year is vastly improved. Boston brought in Jason Terry to replace Ray Allen, and I actually think Terry is a better player than Allen at this stage. He isn't the same spot-up guy, but he's better at creating his own shot which takes some pressure off of Pierce and Rondo as creators. In addition, Courtney Lee arrives to provide a good wing defender, and Avery Bradley established himself as an elite defender in his short time last season pre-injury. When he's back and healthy, they could be terrors on the perimeter with Bradley, Rondo, and Lee causing havoc. The biggest acquisition, however, wasn't an acquisition at all, in that Jeff Green has returned from his heart issue that sidelined him for 2011-12. Green became a pretty overrated commodity in his time in OKC (combined with his top-5 pick pedigree), but he's a GIANT upgrade from the pu pu platter that Boston trotted out off the bench last season. He's a very nice option as a backup at both forward spots, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him playing crunch-time at power forward depending on the match-up. That said, the contact they gave him (4 years, 36 million) was an abject disaster, and I'm still trying to figure out what in the world Danny Ainge was thinking. And finally, I'm a big Jared Sullinger fan (despite his collegiate affiliation) and think that if his back holds up, he's a contributor right away. He'll never be a great athlete, but he's a very, very smart basketball player and he will rebound at this level. In short, I like the Celtics a lot, and if this was a projection of playoff positioning rather than a judgment of an 82-game schedule, they'd be higher.
  • X-Factor - Health/Age. I was tempted to go with Jeff Green here, but I'll take on the larger topic. Basically, if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are healthy and ready to go in April/May, that's easily the biggest key. Doc has been adept at handling veterans and the increase in quality depth this year should only help that. They aren't winning anything unless KG and Pierce are close to 100% in the playoffs.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Jason Terry has a 3+ PER edge on Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo leads the league in assists again, except this time he also shoots 48+% from the field and at-or-near 70% from the line. 
  • Projected Record - 50-32
2) Indiana Pacers
  • Starting Lineup - Roy Hibbert (C), David West (PF), Danny Granger (SF), Paul George (SG), George Hill (PG)
  • Bench - Ian Mahinmi (C)*, Miles Plumlee (C), Tyler Hansborough (PF)*, Gerald Green (SF), Sam Young (SF), Lance Stephenson (SG), DJ Augustin (PG), Sundiata Gaines (PG)
  • Overview - I really, really don't like the Pacers being the 2nd best team in the conference, but there are reasons that they've settled here. First, they have youth combined with modest experience and there aren't the same injury/age concerns that teams like New York and Boston have. Secondly, we've now seen this group do it for a full season, and that was with a huge dip in production from their "best" player in Danny Granger. I thought they overpaid for George Hill at $8 million a year, but he's now firmly entrenched as the starter, and Augustin is a reasonable backup option. In the front-court, they went and got Mahinmi to give them some solid, though uninspiring play, and if you combine with with Hansborough, they are at least 4-deep in the front-court with solid quality. Wing depth was a huge issue for Indy in 2012, and the Sam Young/Gerald Green signings were an attempt to remedy that. I loved the Green move, as he was good in New Jersey last year, and still presents tons of upside as he is maturing and still only 26 years old. Hibbert got paid last year, and that's usually a concern, but on the court, I think you can pencil him in for 13 and 9 with 2 blocks a game, and that's pretty good in today's league (we'll take about the vast overpayment at another time). Granger and George provide great size and versatility on the wing, and that is a huge strength, especially with the current state of shooting guards in the league. 
  • X-Factor - Paul George. He made the modest leap to averaging 12 points and 6 boards a game in 30 minutes last season while boosting his PER to a solid 16.55 in his second campaign. George is still only 22 years old, and Pacer fans are penciling in another leap this season. If he can jump up another category and possibly even supplant Granger as the primary wing option, this team could be pretty scary. If he levels out and we find that the 2012 version is kind of who George is, this prediction is optimistic.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Paul George finishes 2013 with the highest PER on the Pacers after being 4th last year. Miles Plumlee turns into a more athletic Jeff Foster. DJ Augustin will make every die-hard Pacers fan google the details of the Collison/Mahinmi trade... and scream "WHY DID WE HAVE TRADE COLLISON FOR THE RIGHT TO OVERPAY MAHINMI?! WHYYYY!?"
  • Projected Record - 51-31
1) Miami Heat 
  • Starting Lineup - Chris Bosh (C), Lebron James (PF), Shane Battier (SF), Dwyane Wade (SG), Mario Chalmers (PG)
  • Bench - Joel Anthony (C)*, Udonis Haslem (PF)*, Rashard Lewis (SF/PF)*, Ray Allen (SG)*, Mike Miller (SG/SF), James Jones (SG), Norris Cole (PG)*
  • Overview - The defending champions are back and if anything, they are improved for 2012-2013. They have the best player in the world in Lebron James, and he's coming off one of the more dominant playoff performances since MJ left the league. In addition, the did a lot of the playoff lifting with a non-healthy Chris Bosh, and with him at 100% combined with Wade (who does actually have some injury concern), the big three is formidable. The biggest change (read: improvement) for the Heat this year is in an increase in quality depth. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have arrived to take minutes away from the nearly decrepit Mike Miller and the James Jones/Terrel Harris duo meaning that the Heat can legitimately go 11 deep without batting an eye. The size issue still remains to a point, but with the revelation of a Bosh/Lebron combo at the 4 and 5 spots that they rolled out in the playoffs, they simply run people out of the gym with athleticism while still being able to match most teams (LA, Memphis, etc. not withstanding) physically. 
  • X-Factor - Dwyane Wade's knee. No matter how fantastic Lebron was last year and continues to be, the Heat aren't the favorite unless Wade is at least near 100 percent. He had knee surgery over the summer and has been limited in training camp, and while it's too early to be concerned at all, this is a guy with a ton of miles on his tires who will turn 31 years old in January. Make no mistake, Wade is clearly the second fiddle these days, but he's still a darn good second fiddle. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Lebron averaged 27/8/6 with a PER of 30.8 last year. I think he eclipses most, if not all, of those numbers this year and I'm picturing a 29/9/6 type of a line with a shot at breaking 31 on the PER scale. Also, I think Ray Allen is done. Yes, you read that right. Does it mean he can't be a bench guy and help them? Absolutely not, but anybody expecting RAY ALLEN (capital letters) will be sorely disappointed, and I think you'll see numbers closer to his 2012 playoff numbers (40% shooting, 13 points per 40 minutes) than his regular season numbers from last year. 
  • Projected Record - 65-17

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hawks beat Heat in Eastern Conference Finals.. Lou Will leads team averaging 38 ppg in the series (off the bench).