Due to the lockout, this NBA season will be unlike any other, comprising of only 66 games and forcing teams to play brutal schedules. As well as this, it starts on Christmas Day, and, as my present to you, here is a preview of all the teams, starting with the Eastern Conference.
15. Toronto Raptors
This team is horrible, simply put. Just horrible. Their 5th round pick in the draft, Jonas Valančiūnas, is a gangly European Centre, just like their best player, Andrea Bargnani. Except poor Jonas is stuck in Lithuania for another year due to being under contract with his previous team. With a shortened season approaching, I genuinely struggle to see how this team wins 10 games. A depressing enough thought that will only be compounded by watching the performances of the draft prospects they foolishly passed on, such as Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland’s owner Dan Gilbert showed us once again what a petty individual and colossal tool he is this off-season. If his famed, comic sans letter to fans, professing that we would bring a title to Cleveland before the departed Lebron James won his own was not enough, Gilbert apparently led the protests about the nixed Chris Paul to the Lakers trade. Anyway, Gilbert’s buffoonery will likely overshadow this Cavs season, which is probably for the best really considering it is mostly the same team which produced last year’s putrid 19-63 effort. First overall pick Kyrie Irving obviously gives the team hope, but aside from fellow rookie Tristan Thompson, I see no one to give the kid any help.
13. Charlotte Bobcats
Due to the lockout, this past NBA off-season was unusually dominated by the owners, pretty much every one of whom took a hard-line stance in refusing to give the players anything at all, and this included Bobcats owner Michael Jordan. Yes, Jordan, one of the greatest players of all time and a hero to this generation of NBA stars, was apparently the harshest of them all. The move lost him the respect of many players and appears extremely hypocritical considering he was still an active member of the Players Union only ten years ago. However it seems pretty in keeping with Jordan’s personality. As player he would do anything to win and was a veritable sociopath by all accounts. I am once again talking about the owner of a team because the team itself is horrible. The Bobcats this year, much like every NBA bottom-feeder, will look to develop their young players while still losing enough games to garner a high draft pick. The future does look bright for Charlotte though, as a very productive draft produced two potential stars in Kemba Walker and the exquisitely titled Bismack Biyombo. You never know, Michael Jordan may still have some titles left in him…
12. Detroit Pistons
For some reason the Pistons threw a combined $71 million at Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko this off-season, completely ignoring the fact that they already have two perennial underachievers in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva on the books for around $19 million this year, and that cap space is a useful thing that can be used to sign good basketball players . They did however make the smart move of bringing in former Boston assistant Lawrence Frank as coach. The last Boston assistant to land a head coaching job was a certain Tom Thibodeau, reigning Coach of the Year.
11. Washington Wizards
John Wall should make the leap to an elite player in his second season as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose did before him. It is not going to be enough to propel Washington into the playoffs however, even in the frankly shocking Eastern Conference.
10. New Jersey Nets
Mikhail Prokhorov’s master plan is finally coming together. And no, I am not referring to the current political unrest in Russia. The presidential nominee will this year oversee Nets’ final season in Newark before they move to the more desirable Brooklyn and a shiny new arena. The venue will not only generate more revenue but has an obvious appeal for potential superstar free agents – a situation not hurt by the presence of minority owner Jay-Z. Dwight Howard seems to be convinced, claiming the Nets to be his preferred destination via trade or free agency. But this is all in the future, what about this upcoming season? Well they have all-star Point Guard Deron Williams but not much else except for Robin Lopez, a seven foot Centre who cannot rebound. Brooklyn can’t come soon enough.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
I like this Bucks team a lot, and I reckon they will challenge all season for that final play-off position. Andrew Bogut is one of the most underrated players in the league, and is probably the second best Centre behind Dwight Howard, unless you are a Lakers fan and still cling on to the hope that Andrew Bynum will become elite (a belief that the organization clearly doesn’t hold as they are actively trying to swap him for Howard). Around the Aussie giant are defensive stalwarts Luc Mbah Mboute and Stephan Jackson and potential superstar guard Brandon Jennings. Milwaukee will be incredibly hard to beat this year, forcing the most physically out of their opponents, a quality that will prove extremely useful in this compressed schedule.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Does any team scream ‘mediocrity’ as much as Atlanta? Coming off their surprise (but deserved) victory over Orlando in the first round of the play-offs, the Hawks should be soaring. But instead they chose not to build on this minor success and have merely brought back the same team, except without their x-factor off the bench and all-round impossible shot-maker extraordinaire Jamal Crawford. In his place is Tracy McGrady’s corpse, not exactly a signing to bring much optimism, and a another shock first round win seems to be this teams ceiling, which is a bit depressing really.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
An absolute smorgasbord of young talent is currently in Philly, making the city relevant to basketball for the first time since Allen Iverson departed. Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes are all 23 or under, whilst Andre Iguodala has turned himself into a defensive force after losing the burden of being the team’s only scoring option. They will be one of the most fun teams to watch this year and will not be afraid of anyone, especially after gaining their first taste of the playoffs last year, playing the Heat incredibly close in a first round exit.
6. Boston Celtics
Heading into the start of the season the two teams in most turmoil are the legendary Lakers and Celtics. Imagine that. After its unsuccessful pursuit of Chris Paul, Boston is left with a roster of aging, decrepit stars, an extremely disgruntled Rajon Rondo and… well nothing else really. The compressed schedule will play havoc with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett’s bodies, whilst Paul Pierce is already a doubt for the opener. What was meant to be the triumphant final act of the original Big Three is quickly turning into an epic anti-climax. For the first time since Garnett arrived and revived this historic franchise, the Celtics are irrelevant.
5. Indiana Pacers
Very quietly, the Pacers have probably had the best off-season of anyone other than the Clippers. They made the savvy decision not to resign the overrated trio of Mike Dunleavy, TJ Ford and Josh McRoberts, instead bringing in excellent young guard George Hill via trade from the Spurs and the biggest coup of all, David West via free agency. If West’s knees can hold up, securing his services for only $8 million a season is an absolute steal, especially if he can rekindle the chemistry he had with Darren Collinson in New Orleans. All of this has propelled the Pacers into a seemingly surefire play-off spot, such is the lack of depth in the East.
4. Orlando Magic
Everything this year for Magic revolves around Dwight Howard. His performance on the court determines their fate every night, and his ongoing trade saga the headlines the next morning. If he still is in Florida after March’s trade deadline, Orlando will be contenders for a title and contenders for Howard’s signature in free agency. But if he jumps ship the Magic will fade into anonymity.
3. New York Knicks
Having a ‘Big Three’ seems to be in vogue at the moment. Ever since Garnett, Pierce and Allen teamed up in Boston, a team has been defined by its best three players and everyone has rushed to assemble a similar dynamic. But this is misguided. Those Garnett led Celtics teams owed a lot to the precocious play of young players Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, the veteran presence of James Posey and the leadership of coach Doc Rivers. They were not just a three player team. Last year the feared and fêted Big Three of Miami were beaten by the depth and tactical astuteness of the Dallas Mavericks, proving the horrible old sporting trope of ‘teamwork beats talent’ to be true. Merely assembling a top-heavy team talent-wise does not guarantee success, yet by adding Tyson Chandler, New York thinks it has it made. They still have serious weaknesses however, especially in the backcourt, where Mike Bibby’s pension plan and Baron Davis’s gastric band are being lauded as genuine upgrades. Their strength undeniably lies in the frontcourt, and expect them to slow the game down and exploit this advantage. But this in itself reveals tension, as it is in complete contrast to coach Mike D’Antoni’s rapid, run-and-gun style. Ultimately, the Knicks will do well this year due to their proliferation of talent, but to pencil them in for a championship, let alone a Finals appearance, is naïve at best.
2. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose is very good at basketball. Tom Thibodeau is a very good coach. Both of them now have an extra year of experience and greatness very much seems a possibility. Their key off-season acquisition of Rip Hamilton will bring veteran leadership and championship swagger to an already very self-assured squad. This all seems very sensible and promising, but will it be enough to get past the Heat though?
1. Miami Heat
It may be boring, but Miami are the best team in the NBA, and how could they not be? They have the two of the league’s best three players in Lebron James and Dwyane Wade (Dwight Howard is the other one) and have added Shane Battier and his tenacious defense to last year’s Final’s runners-up. Their wings are obviously excellent, but the two positions they are most deficient at, Point Guard and Centre, happen to be the strengths of their opponents in the East. Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo must be licking their lips at the prospect of taking down the self-anointed champions in the playoffs. But that’s April’s problem, for now look for the Heat to post the best record in the league and look generally other-worldly.