I’ve never been more relieved to write a series of blogs in my entire life. After a contentious lockout nearly wiped out the NBA this year, we’re left with a 66 game schedule that will test the legs and resolve of the players, especially the veteran teams (ahem, Boston, LA Lakers and San Antonio). I’ll get to who I predict to win the title in another blog. In the meantime, I’ll break down every team by division, starting with the Atlantic.
2010-11 Record: 22-60
Key Departures: Reggie Evans, Coach Jay Triano
Key Arrivals: Rasaul Butler, Coach Duane Casey
In year 2 of the post-Bosh rebuilding project, the Raptors find themselves with a young roster that struggled to find its way in a top-heavy East last season. Bryan Colangelo’s dream of building a Suns-east roster produced a ton of shots (10th in Pace), but it also resulted in a ton of misses (21st in Off Efficiency) and abysmal defense (last in Def Efficiency). They did have bright spots though, mainly in Demar Derozan and Andrea Bargnani. Derozan quietly had an excellent season, averaging almost 18 per game on 47% shooting and giving fans glimpses of the franchise player that
will leave he is capable of being. Derozan’s athletic prowess is well documented, but the real key to his development lies in improving his jumper from long range and becoming a more willing passer when he gets cut off on his drives. Bargnani also improved his scoring stats for the 5th straight season, but his rebounding and defense is alarmingly bad. I know he is a perimeter player at heart, but averaging 5 rebs and less than a single block per game is inexcusable for a starting center, and he will have to provide some form of basket protection for Toronto to improve defensively, especially since Reggie Evans has gone elsewhere. There are plenty of areas where Toronto can stand to improve, but they basically progress as Derozan and Bargnani progress.
Prediction: 17-49. Derozan breaks out this year and becomes known for more than his dunks, but the Raptors don’t have enough talent to make the playoffs this season. The growing pains continue.
2010-11 Record: 41-41
Key Departures: none
Key Arrivals: none
The 76ers come in as one of the most improved teams in the league, finishing strong towards the end of the season and showing a lot of fight in the first round against Miami despite losing in 5 games. Doug Collins’ defensive mentality played a major part in their success (7th in Def Efficiency), and so did the progression of their young core, namely Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, and Evan Turner later in the season. Williams made a legitimate push for 6th man of the year last season, averaging 14 PPG off the bench and providing the spark plug whenever the starters struggled offensively, which happened fairly often. Holiday quietly made a push towards the top tier of point guards, averaging 14 PPG/ 6.5 APG/ 4 RPG, 1.5 steals and showing no gaping holes in his game. At age 20. When the top point guard conversation comes up, you mainly hear the usual suspects like CP3, Deron, Westbrook, Rondo, Rose and Nash, but I suspect that Holiday will make his way into that conversation sooner than later. After looking lost at times early last season, Evan Turner started looking like the player Philly hoped to see when they used the 2nd pick on him. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t build on that momentum this season. Even Elton Brand started all but one game last season and led the team in scoring, making him slightly less egregiously overpaid. The 76ers’ biggest problem, besides their lack of quality big men (the Hawes/Speights/Battie combo strikes fear in exactly no one), lies in not having a true alpha scorer, especially in close games. Five players averaged between 10 and 15 PPG last season and Andre Iguodala, as talented as he is, is terribly miscast as the primary scoring option on a playoff team. Philly will continue to improve this year, especially defensively, but they will have a solid ceiling unless someone (Lou Williams, perhaps?) steps up to score the tough baskets in crunch time.
Prediction: 37-29. The Sixers’ young legs and commitment to defense will greatly benefit them in a compressed season, but I don’t think they have the firepower to go far in the playoffs this year.
New Jersey Nets
2010-11 Record: 24-58
Key Departures: none
Key Arrivals: Marshon Brooks
New Jersey is in year 3 of their rebuilding project, but they look to be on the fast track to relevance by trading for Deron Williams and being in serious talks for Dwight Howard. In the meantime, they have a roster that doesn’t have much to offer outside of Williams, Brook Lopez (who quietly averaged 20 PPG, 6 RPG and 1.5 blocks after getting over his bout with mono), and Anthony Morrow (arguably the best young shooter in the league). Although all the potential Chris Paul and Dwight Howard trades dominated the media this month, Williams also made a splash by declining an extension offer from New Jersey, meaning he will likely be a free agent next summer. The Nets’ fate will depend on how well they can focus with the issues that will inevitably come from the uncertainty of Williams’ status and how much he can improve an offense that was 28th in Off Efficiency last season. Keep your eye on Marshon Brooks, a rookie gunner from Providence who will push Morrow for major minutes at the SG slot.
Prediction: 25-41. A healthy Deron Williams will be brilliant and Morrow will continue to shoot the lights out, but swirling rumors and a glaring lack of talent/depth will be their downfall.
New York Knicks
2010-11 Record: 42-40
Key Departures: Chauncey Billups
Key Arrivals: Tyson Chandler, Mike Bibby, Iman Shumpert
New York finally have their Big 3, just not the one their fans clamored for in the offseason. Nonetheless, the signing of Tyson Chandler will pay major dividends towards improving their 28th ranked defense and presents an ideal compliment for Amare Stoudemire offensively and defensively. Although the Knicks were great in transition offense last year, there are still questions on whether they can be effective when the pace slows. Amare and Carmelo are both ball stoppers and they generally work from the same spots on the floor, so until they both learn how to move without the ball, the Knicks’ offense will continue to be stagnant and predictable in the half court. New York will look for Bibby to hit the open looks that will come from teams helping on Melo and Amare. Landry Fields building on his strong rookie campaign will also be important if the Knicks want to be considered title contenders this season. Look for rookie Iman Shumpert to get major minutes and provide badly needed defense and athleticism on the wing.
Prediction: 40-26. New York will improve their defense with the additions of Chandler and Shumpert. Melo and Amare will also learn how to coexist with the half court. Even then, will it be enough to overthrow Miami or Chicago? Not yet.
2010-11 Record: 56-26
Key Departures: Glen Davis, Shaquille O’neal
Key Arrivals: Brandon Bass
The Celtics couldn’t have had a worse offseason. They vocally dangled Rajon Rondo in a CP3 trade, knowing that he’s volatile emotionally. Pierce and Garnett are already complaining to the media about the rushed training camp. The compressed schedule will do no favors to their already weary knees. They didn’t enter the season with their usual edge after losing convincingly to Miami in the 2nd round last season. Jeff Green, Boston’s most important player outside of their stars, has missed the first 6 practices due to an unknown red flag in his physical. Despite all of this, Boston will look to make one last title run before Father Time claims Garnett and Danny Ainge decides to blow up the team and start from scratch. Their defense will continue to be elite (top 3 Def Efficiency for the past three years), Rondo will have another stellar season, and Pierce and Ray Allen will be solid again. The wild card is Kevin Garnett. If Garnett has one more elite season left in him, Boston is a serious contender for the title this year. That’s a giant IF, but it’d be foolish to dismiss a proud, veteran team with championship experience and a great coach in Doc Rivers. Look for the Celtics to lean on Jeff Green and Brandon Bass to provide extra rest for KG and Pierce, especially on the end of back-to-backs.
Prediction: 44-22. Boston will sacrifice a few regular season games to keep their fresh legs for the playoffs. Garnett has a final great season and they make the Conference Finals.