This is the second part of our NBA Eastern Conference preview. In the first part we looked at the Atlantic and Central divisions.
(2011-2012 Record: 46-20, 2nd in Conference, 1st in Southeast)
Key Additions: Dion Waiters (SG)
Key Losses: Antawn Jamison (SF)
Justin: Front runners for a reason, but, great as Ray Allen is, nobody can shoot 3s better than Miller and Battier did in last year’s finals. Therefore, you can’t technically say he “improves” their chances. Unless of course you expect the former two to fall off big time from that Finals performance. Which most people probably logically should.
Can you believe Miami plays in this division? Will they have a single divisional loss the entire season? The Hawks have to beat them at some point right?
There’s really just not much to say here. I’m happy LeBron finally got his title, now I’d be happier if he never got one again. But that probably won’t happen. The Lakers have a chance if the team meshes. People say they have zero depth, but, neither do the Heat. Their bigger problem is long term competition as once Gasol and Kobe and Nash age, Howard won’t be getting it done alone. San Antonio isn’t done yet, and Kawhi Leonard has breakout star potential to help out the aging big three. Oklahoma City would have to play out of their minds, and we don’t even know how this team will look a year from today. What all this leads us to is the simple point that we’re heading toward at least a five year period where the Heat win or contend for every title. This is going to suck.
Mike: As an admitted recovering Lebron hater, I realize that he still has detractors out there, but I've always been a believer in the theory that winning trumps all. The biggest reason I actively hated on Lebron was due to the differences between the pure skill and ability he has as a basketball and the lack of quantifiable success from a championship standpoint that had materialized for him. I get that it's a team game and you need a good team around you to win titles. I don't fault him for not winning when he was in Cleveland, as the teams that he had to lead there were pretty terrible. But I did fault him for those moments when he would seemingly shirk from the spotlight, when he wouldn't embrace his natural role of being the most dominant scorer in the league. It's funny, I think that playoff game against Detroit when he scored 24 straight points was probably a tough moment in his career, because it sort of set the bar for what we wanted to see from him all the time. Reminds me of when Kerry Wood struck out 20 in one of the first starts of his career, then had to spend the rest of his career not living up to the ridiculous expectations that game created.
So Lebron in Miami was an easy target, because here you have the best player in the league going to someone else's team to go play and try to win a title. And every time he came up short it was just a reminder that he wasn't doing what he should be doing, what we saw him do against Detroit. Who's the best player to never win a title? Charles Barkley? Steve Nash? C'mon, Lebron is much better than either of those guys. You just can't be that good and never win a championship. And now he has that title. Despite all the criticism, the scrutiny, he managed to win the NBA championship, and he was the best player on the team when he did it. There's really nothing else you can say about it. And you know what? Once he was able to prove his championship pedigree by winning a title, I found him to be a much easier player to get behind and support. As a Bulls fan I will actively root against him once the season starts and I hope for nothing but failure for him any time it comes down to Miami and Chicago. However, at the Olympics this summer, I was all in on Lebron. It was great watching him do amazing things on the court. And it felt nice to have winner Lebron on your team to root for, instead of loser-comes-up-small-at-the-end Lebron. And I would imagine he enjoyed it too. MVP, NBA title, Olympic Gold Medal. Not a bad year.
How does this set up for this season? Miami is and should be the clear favorite in the East, basically. Lebron, Wade, and Bosh are all back, and without the mountain of expectation to win a title on their shoulders. *Talk about roster changes.*
Boston, Chicago, New York could all give them some trouble in a seven game series, but the way the team is put together now I don't think anyone is a serious threat to them making it back to the NBA Finals. The Lakers and the Thunder, on the other hand, that's another story.
(2011-2012 Record: 37-29, 6th in Conference, 3rd in Southeast)
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo (SG), Gustavo Ayon (PF)
Key Losses: Dwight Howard (C), Ryan Anderson (PF)
Justin: Rebuild mode, but may, not even be bad enough to get a top 3 pick. Bad time to cheer for Orlando. Not like their fans ever really do. But there’s always ten years from now.
Mike: You have to feel bad for Magic fans. This is now the second once-in-a-generation center to up and leave the team to go play for the Lakers. And given what's left on this roster, I mean, is there any way this team can be remotely competitive? In case anyone underestimated how great it is to have someone like Dwight Howard around to cover for your team's defensive flaws, watching this year's Magic team should be a good reminder to you.
Justin: Seriously, who is going to lead this team? Arron Afflalo I guess, but knowing this organization it’ll be Jameer Nelson or Glen Davis instead. Just look at this roster. There’s pieces here and there, sure, I’m a big proponent on Ayon, Reddick, Harkless’ future.. but if chemistry and team building has ever meant anything, they’re doomed. This is one of the most haphazard rosters you’ll find anywhere and while I’m way too lazy to look it up, I’d guess it’s one of the most of the modern era.
Mike: I was listening to a podcast not too long ago with the Van Gundy brothers on it and I was surprised at how, calm and not pissed off Stan sounded. But you think about it a little more, and you spend some time looking at the way the Magic are structured now, and it seems a little easier to understand. I mean, even if he didn't get fired after last year, there's no way he doesn't get fired at some point this year, so whatever, I guess he can just enjoy getting out when he did and not have to worry about coaching this team.
But hey, they finally don't have one of the biggest payrolls in the league! Baby steps. I shudder to think what it's going to be like watching Gustavo Ayon and Glen Davis trying to put up points in the frontcourt when they're playing together. At least Al Harrington is there so they aren't a complete mess offensively. But who's playing small forward aside from Hedo Turkoglu? Quentin Richardson? Throw JJ Reddick out there for a bit? And how is Jameer Nelson possibly still the best option for that team at point guard? Remember the discussion about how Jose Calderon could start for other teams in the league? This would be one of those teams. At least they came to their senses and dropped Chris Duhon from back up duty?
Is there a legitimate offensive threat on this entire team that anyone would be afraid of? I'll be very curious to see how many games these guys can actually win this year. Should be pretty ugly.
(2011-2012 Record: 40-26, 5th in Conference, 2nd in Southeast)
Key Additions: Lou Williams (SG)
Key Losses: Joe Johnson (SG)
Justin: The Hawks should, even without Joe Johnson, perform and lose in the playoffs the same way they have for seemingly ever. If you check out their roster, they should actually be a solid team. They drafted who I considered the best shooter out of college, John Jenkins. They made solid moves everywhere, with Danny Ferry immediately impressing. Most importantly, they kept Ivan Johnson and his grill. They can rebound, play the post, play defense, and shoot the lights out. Until they show they can not get beat by 40 twice a year in the playoffs though, it’s the same old Hawks. My hope for them is that they give Josh Smith the trade he’s wanted for years, and get fair value for him. Here’s one such possible deal, just to screw with Maloney. Works out well for both parties. Smith is a headcase and has some abysmal shot selection, but there is probably not a team in the league that wouldn’t entertain the thought of having him on their roster.
Due to every other team in their division, they’ll likely get a top 4 playoff spot, which could get them into the second round. If Ferry can live up to his first month on the job, they should be able to give the team an entirely fresh start, which has been desperately needed for a while now.
Mike: Are we allowed to give out the Executive of the Year award before the season starts? Or is it required that we wait? I'm not sure how much I necessarily like the Hawks this year, but wow, what Danny Ferry has done with this roster in just a few months is nothing short of amazing. He did what most thought was impossible and moved the rest of Joe Johnson's 4-year $90 million contract, and did it without taking on any long-term contracts in return. Make no mistake, Joe Johnson's contract had basically saddled the franchise with the reality that they would never be title contenders because Johnson is just not good enough to be "the guy" on a title team and his salary makes it too difficult to acquire enough pieces to do anything. And just like that it's gone. Almost as impressive is that the Hawks will have three guys under contract next season, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Lou Williams, and they'll be making less combined than Joe Johnson next year. That means they will have a ton of space next year to go after someone, or they could try and re-sign Josh Smith if that interests them although it doesn't seem likely. Whatever they do, they have so many options and the three guys that they'll have under contract are three of the four best players on their team.
And that's not even talking about the Lou Williams signing. His entire four year contract is the same amount as Joe Johnson's salary this year. Wow. And is Lou really that much of a downgrade from Joe Johnson? As stupid as Philly was for letting him walk (and for so cheap too!) Atlanta is that smart for picking him up.
Now that I'm done praising Ferry's impressive work thus far, there is still the issue of "Okay, but what else is there?" Assuming we see the typical lineup of Josh Smith at the 4 and Al Horford playing center, I'm not really sure what they're going to do at the 3. Right now Kyle Korver is the only small forward on the roster, and they don't really have much in the way of oversized two guards who can play both positions. Kyle Korver is a fantastic shooter, and his contributions behind the arc can't be discounted...but there's a reason why the guy has only started 15% of his career games. He is great at one thing, shooting threes. But he can't drive to the hoop, he can't create his own shot with the ball, and he's an average at best one on one defender. That's not exactly a list of accomplishments you want to see for your starting small forward, not to mention the fact it's not like there's a perfectly capable back up small forward waiting to come in and limit his minutes.
Hawks fans actually can be a little optimistic about their team's future, they have some solid pieces to build around, a ton of cap space going forward, and a GM who has already done wonders for the team. But I'm not totally sure they're going to find their way into the playoffs. The Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Pacers, and Knicks are all gimmes for the playoffs. You would expect the Sixers and probably the Nets to make it as well. That does leave a spot open, and I'd probably make the Hawks the favorites to get it, but there is always the possibility of the Bucks hanging around or Justin's new favorite team the Raptors somehow making it in.
I hate your Josh Smith trade, by the way. But I'm sure you knew that when you made it.
(2011-2012 Record: 20-46, 14th in Conference, 4th in Southeast)
Key Additions: Emeka Okafor (C), Bradley Beal (SG)
Key Losses: Rashard Lewis (PF)
Justin: Getting some pre-season love and I have no idea why. This is going to be a bad team. Bradley Beal and Nene, the most overrated C in the league, should be able to help them score at a decent rate, but there’s not much else. Jordan Crawford ought to put up too many shots, and Okafor can help on the defensive end. Jan Vesely averaged about a 6 and 5 playing half the game which obviously isn’t good enough, but hopefully is just growing pains that people generally have coming into the NBA from Europe.
But the big story here is Wall. He can be a really good starting PG and get another 16 and 8, and that’s fine. Hell, it’s really not even about the numbers so much. He simply needs to make this team competitive and live up to his draft hype. The East isn’t exactly hyper-competitive. We’ll see what Wall can do in Year 3.
Mike: John Hollinger somehow predicted the Wizards finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference. I could maybe see that if John Wall learns how to shoot, Bradley Beal ends up being much better than expected his rookie year, Nene stays healthy, Trevor Booker continues to improve and steals Okafor's minutes, and Jan Vesely starts to figure out how to play in the NBA (By the way, I'm glad that Jan Vesely link went exactly where I was hoping it would). Basically, it's not going to happen.
Wall could get his jump shot figured out, Derrick Rose was not a very good jump shooter until he worked his ass off over the summer coming into his third season and now has a solid midrange jumpshot and a decent three pointer (He just never knows when to shoot it). A lot of what Wall does is reminiscent of Rose, so maybe he can follow in his footsteps and learn to shoot. I don't have a ton of thoughts on Beal one way or the other, but I can say that I'm not expecting any miracles out of him his rookie year, he's so young. One bright spot I didn't mention before is Trevor Ariza. I love his fit on the team, and I think he'll just sort of be able to pick his spots on offense while serving as a major asset for Washington on defense. And really you'd expect the Wizards to be strong defensively. But overall they're really lacking in talent and unless Wall plays out of his mind I just don't see any way for them to make the playoffs.
(2011-2012 Record: 7-59, 15th in Conference, 5th in Southeast)
Key Additions: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (SG), Ramon Sessions (PG)
Key Losses: Corey Maggette (SF)
Justin: Watch, if you must, for the youth that one day may be good on other teams. Or may get matured on such an abysmal team and franchise that their careers are already doomed. Which isn’t totally out of play. When Rich Cho gets bored in his office, do you think he just spends all day reading 2013 mock drafts? That’s considering they draft intelligently like they did this year, instead of badly like, well, every other year. Anything has to be better than realizing what Jordan gifted to him. Hate to say it, but they aren’t even particularly worth talking about. Biyombo will be fun to watch. Kemba will probably struggle to be a starting calibre PG. Kidd-Gilchrist will possibly kill himself trying to help them. Ben Gordon will shoot 50x a game. Gerald Henderson will likely continue to be there best player. And they are still the smart money to have the worst record in the league. I don’t see any other team being close to this bad. It’s going to be a long year in Charlotte.
Mike: Do you think we'll ever find out why it is that Michael Jordan runs his basketball team the way that he does? I will forever remain baffled at how one of the most driven competitive athletes ever can become the owner of a team, and then watch as that team completely bottoms out and puts together the worst winning percentage in the history of the NBA. And does it even bother him? Does he even know? Does he get score updates on the golf course? Is this all some long-term bet he made with someone else to see if he could actually run his own basketball team into the ground? I just don't get it.
This team should be awful again and will no doubt be headed for a top 5 pick in next year's draft.
Okay, that'll do it for Part One. Thanks for reading, and check out our thoughts on the Lakers and the rest of the Western Conference in Part Two!