The competitive landscape of the NBA is probably the easiest to gauge early in the season among the four major American sports leagues. Eight teams make the playoffs from each conference, and it’s usually pretty evident from the outset which squads are legit enough to have a spot sewn up or at least be in the mix for one of the lower seeds.
In Major League Baseball, the standings at the midpoint of the season are hardly a definitive indicator of what teams will make the playoffs, because there are so many games remaining and there are only four spots to go around in each league. In hockey, goals can be so fluky that extended winning or losing streaks are not uncommon. And in the NFL, injuries, the opportunity to radically change schemes and/or key personnel in the middle of a season, and the consequences wrought by an untimely loss or two in such a relatively short season make the playoff picture tough to predict.
So, if it’s so easy, why bother? Because no preseason games have even been played yet! I haven’t gotten a chance to see who looks good and who looks old, slow, and/or frustrated, so this is a much tougher test. Bring it on.
Shaquille O’Neal; Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Anderson Varejão; J.J. Hickson/Leon Powe
LeBron James; Jamario Moon
Anthony Parker; Delonte West
Mo Williams; Daniel Gibson
It just fits. Shaq demonstrated with the Suns last year that he still has the ability to consistently get the power game working. But he was surrounded by personnel built for run and gun who struggled in the half-court. Now he takes his game to the King’s Court where he will be allowed to work down low early in the game, tiring out the opponent’s big man, before he starts to unleash his over-the-shoulder post pass ad nauseum to a cutting LeBron, Varejão, and others for easy finishes.
And when he misses his requisite 10-20 games for some nagging injury? Big Z can hold down the fort just fine. New 2-guard Anthony Parker fits this team exquisitely. Reliable 3-pt. shooter, able to create his own shot when need be, but totally willing to defer for the good of the team. Mo Williams wasn’t quite good enough to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman all the way to a title, but as the third wheel, watch out.
Kendrick Perkins; Rasheed Wallace
Kevin Garnett; Glen Davis
Paul Pierce; Marquis Daniels
Ray Allen; Tony Allen
Rajon Rondo; Eddie House
The most talented team in the league. Rondo, Ray Allen, Pierce, KG, & ‘Sheed is about as potent a crunch-time lineup as one could imagine. Marquis Daniels will serve as an excellent insurance policy should one of the elder wingmen go down. But I can’t shake the feeling that this team seems like a beautiful crystal that would shatter should the slightest turbulence hit.
Who’s the leader? KG would seem to be, but Rondo is certainly on his heels (to say the least) for team MVP, and there have been no definitive indications that Garnett is completely healthy heading into this year. And even from someone like KG who means well, I don’t see Rasheed taking too fondly to anyone getting in his face and yelling (even when it comes to KG’s trademark bouts of congratulations). And I already mentioned the firepower of the supposed crunch-time lineup, but since when did Kendrick Perkins start giving the impression that he was down to take a back seat?
Key Reserves: Randy Foye, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Dominic McGuire, DeShawn Stevenson, Nick Young, Fabricio Oberto
The Wiz are poised to topple Orlando for the division title. Arenas may be a primadonna, but not in the mold of many superstars who lack the work ethic to take their game to its highest level. Arenas lives and breathes basketball, and by all accounts he is fully healthy and primed for a career season. His absence due to injury doesn’t negate the chemistry he has built with Butler, Jamison, and Haywood over the years.
Add in newcomers Mike Miller, Randy Foye, & Fabricio Oberto to complement the emerging Andray Blatche and this team presents a match-up nightmare for anyone. Haywood should enter the season ready to be the man in the middle as a result of improved focus stemming from the departure of Etan Thomas, with whom he was constantly feuding. New coach Flip Saunders wasn’t tough enough to command genuine respect from the boys in Motown, but his quirky personality will mesh perfectly with this eccentric team, specifically Arenas.
Dwight Howard; Marcin Gortat
Ryan Anderson; Brandon Bass
Rashard Lewis; Matt Barnes
Vince Carter; Mickael Pietrus/J.J. Redick
Jameer Nelson; Jason Williams
The depth chart of the Magic resembles a Rotisserie fantasy basketball team, as all of these guys have proven themselves capable of producing valuable statistics when given time to play. And therein lies the problem: it appears Stan Van Gundy simply has too much on his plate. Brandon Bass signed to be a starter, yet SVG has already intimated that Ryan Anderson may mesh better with the starting unit. Marcin Gortat signed an offer sheet with the Mavs and publicly stated that he wanted to leave so he could try his hand as a starter, but GM Otis Smith matched to renew the Polish Hammer’s role as Dwight Howard’s 10 min.-a-night backup. Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus have both identified themselves to the media as candidates to join the starting lineup. Even face of the franchise Howard publicly questioned his coach last year, but due to Dwight’s non-confrontational demeanor, he quickly reined in his displeasure at the behest of management.
All this before even mentioning Vince Carter (or Jason Williams). Hedo Turkoglu knew his role; does Vince? Turkoglu had no problem feeding the ball to Howard most of the time and creating jumpers off the dribble when his team needed to be bailed out from the shot clock. Although Carter has admittedly matured as a teammate during some recent rough patches in New Jersey, he will undoubtedly want to shine while playing for his hometown team. And his explosion is starting to evaporate as he turns the calendar page once again.
The Magic will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs, but their 2009-2010 campaign could prove to be a trying endeavor.
Key Reserves: Quentin Richardson; James Jones; Daequan Cook, Chris Quinn; Jamaal Magloire; Joel Anthony
The starting lineup is solid. The bench is not. Miami would be ranked lower except for one small detail: they employ Dwyane Wade. Michael Beasley looks like a solid bet to unleash some of his potential this season as the Pat Riley/Erik Spoelstra braintrust appears to have gotten through to him. Jermaine O’Neal claims he is fully healthy, but what else is new? Udonis Haslem is always underappreciated but excels at doing the dirty work, and Chalmers’ shortcomings as a ballhandler are offset by the fact that Wade usually controls the rock anyway. The bottom line is Wade is easily a top-five player in the NBA, but his supporting cast is arguably bottom-five. He can only carry them so far.
Andrea Bargnani; Rasho Nesterovic/Patrick O’Bryant
Chris Bosh; Reggie Evans/Amir Johnson
Hedo Turkoglu; Antoine Wright
Marco Belinelli; DeMar DeRozan
Jose Calderon; Jarrett Jack
Hedo Turkoglu is the big name, but Toronto also made some less heralded moves in the offseason that may pay huge dividends as well. Their point guard play looks to be much improved, as Jose Calderon is 100% healthy and Jarrett Jack is around to spell him after establishing himself as a legitimate NBA point man last season with the Pacers. The starting shooting guard spot is still unsettled, but Marco Bellinelli is a major sleeper to explode onto the scene this season and already has GM Bryan Colangelo in his corner singing his praises. Turkoglu’s offense is well-chronicled, but he and Reggie Evans should also help fix the Raptors’ rebounding woes. They may not be ready to topple the big boys just yet, but Toronto may have done enough to receive Chris Bosh’s full attention when the looming Summer of 2010 rolls around.
Al Horford; Zaza Pachulia
Josh Smith; Joe Smith
Marvin Williams; Mo Evans
Joe Johnson; Jamal Crawford
Mike Bibby; Jeff Teague
Jamal Crawford probably feels like he has something to prove after his ugly breakup with Don Nelson in Golden State, but how will he go about doing so? This Hawks team seems like a retread that actually needed a more significant overhaul. Bibby’s a year older (and slower), Al Horford isn’t any taller, and Josh Smith and Marvin Williams are still freakish athletes who lack certain basic competencies in their games. This team needed more than just another year to grow together. In replacing Flip Murray with Crawford, the Hawks lost one of their best penetrators and added another guy who opts for low-quality jumpshots. Joe Johnson is good, but his low FG% can be partly attributed to the fact that many opponents realize if they gameplan to hold JJ down, they can count on other Hawks to make unforced errors.
Tyson Chandler; Nazr Mohammed/DeSagana Diop/Alexis Ajinca
Boris Diaw; Vladimir Radmanovic
Gerald Wallace; Flip Murray
Raja Bell; Gerald Henderson
Raymond Felton; D.J. Augustin
This team has some question marks, but Larry Brown squads often demonstrate marked improvement in their second year under his tutelage. Tyson Chandler may or may not be better than Emeka Okafor, but he has already been spotted working with Raymond Felton on the screen-and-roll, so he should be set for a bounceback year following an injury-plagued end to his Hornets career. The arrival of Flip Murray adds a cold-blooded closer to a team that desperately needed one, and on that note, D.J. Augustin should be ready to contribute a full season’s worth of explosive performances after letting his abdomen heal over the summer. This team never counted on Okafor to set the tone with interior scoring, and Chandler’s added size could make this a formidable frontcourt if he is indeed healthy.
Roy Hibbert; Jeff Foster
Troy Murphy; Tyler Hansbrough
Mike Dunleavy; Brandon Rush
Danny Granger; Dahntay Jones/Luther Head
T.J. Ford; Earl Watson
If Mike Dunleavy is ready for opening night as Coach Jim O’Brien is hoping, then slip this team into the playoffs over the Bobcats. But Dunleavy’s knee is tough to trust at this point. What’s not tough to trust is the man holding down the other wing position for the Pacers, Danny Granger. The do-it-all stud is more than just a fantasy dynamo and will keep the Pacers competitive every night. After a stellar preseason a year ago, T.J. Ford was surprisingly bounced to and from the starting lineup in favor of Jarrett Jack, but Jack justified the decision with his outstanding play. Nonetheless, Ford no longer has to look over his shoulder, and he will get this team up and down the court. If Roy Hibbert can stop fouling everybody in sight as if doing so was worth five points, he has the size and skills to develop into a major force in the half-court game.
Joakim Noah; Brad Miller
Tyrus Thomas; Taj Gibson
Luol Deng; James Johnson
John Salmons; Jannero Pargo
Derrick Rose; Kirk Hinrich
Forget about who took his SAT. Other than Derrick Rose, no one on this team can consistently score on opposing defenses. John Paxson will lament playing hardball with Ben Gordon over the years as he watches his secondary players continually let Rose down. Jannero Pargo certainly looked great at times for the Hornets before embarking overseas, but that was because his speed-driving game complemented Chris Paul’s skills-based game perfectly. In joining another speed rusher in Rose, defenses will have an easier time containing him as long as they get back on defense. If Tyrus Thomas can develop a consistent offensive repertoire, then he may be able to minimize what Joakim Noah and Luol Deng lack in skills. But that is a big if.
Samuel Dalembert; Marreese Speights
Elton Brand; Jason Smith
Thaddeus Young; Jason Kapono
Andre Iguodala; Willie Green/Rodney Carney
Lou Williams; Jrue Holiday
Elton Brand will carry this team to respectability, but the loss of Andre Miller hurts. When given the keys to the offense, Lou Williams either shoots a jumper or flys into the lane hoping he can find a teammate to drop it off to, whereas Miller was great at controlling the tempo and intelligently choosing a plan of attack on each possession. Jrue Holiday will not be ready to take the reins in his rookie season. One possible midseason promotion, however, is Marreese Speights bumping the ever-marginal Samuel Dalembert to the bench.
Chris Wilcox; Ben Wallace/Kwame Brown
Charlie Villanueva; Jason Maxiell
Tayshaun Prince; Austin Daye/DaJuan Summers
Rip Hamilton; Ben Gordon
Rodney Stuckey; Will Bynum
The three starters in the frontcourt are all able rebounders statistically, but unfortunately on defense they will turn away opposing scorers about as well as a swinging gate. Ben Wallace’s return to Dee-Troit Bas-Ket-Ball will not be enough to revive his fading motor. Ben Gordon can make the big shots, but is Rip Hamilton okay with him taking them? He’s already clearly frustrated with management, and both he and Tayshaun Prince simply aren’t as good as they were in their prescribed roles alongside Chauncey Billups & co. a few years ago. Add in Rodney Stuckey’s consistent inconsistency and this team is in dire need of direction.
13. New York
Darko Milicic; Eddy Curry
David Lee; Jordan Hill/Jared Jeffries
Al Harrington; Danilo Gallinari
Wilson Chandler; Larry Hughes
Chris Duhon; Nate Robinson
Mike D’Antoni will keep it entertaining, but frankly the Knicks just are not any better than last year. And maybe they don’t care if they’re completely honed in on the 2010 free agent class. But even though they won’t make the playoffs, their run and gun style will expose several other teams’ weaknesses. If Danilo Gallinari is healthy – watch out – D’Antoni will play the Italion Stallion and maybe even start him. Eddy Curry is supposedly in shape but who knows what to expect from a guy who’s been through hell and back like he has. At best he will split minutes with Darko Milicic in a position battle between epic NBA Draft busts.
Andrew Bogut; Dan Gadzuric
Hakim Warrick; Kurt Thomas
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; Joe Alexander/Ersan Ilyasova
Michael Redd; Carlos Delfino/Charlie Bell
Luke Ridnour; Roko Ukic/Brandon Jennings
If this team was completely healthy, they’d probably be a notch higher. When neither Andrew Bogut nor Michael Redd have been cleared to play full contact basketball yet though, the prospects for the upcoming season are especially gloomy. The starting forwards on this team have limited shooting range, although Carlos Delfino, Joe Alexander, and Ersan Ilyasova are all candidates to emerge in front of Luc Richard M.a.M. Possibly the most interesting person to watch during Bucks’ games this year will be Scott Skiles, as he unwittingly challenges the record for most frustrated face in the world.
15. New Jersey
Brook Lopez; Josh Boone
Yi Jianlian; Tony Battie
Bobby Simmons; Terrence Williams
Courtney Lee; Chris Douglas-Roberts/Jarvis Hayes
Devin Harris; Keyon Dooling/Rafer Alston
As a lifelong Mavs fan, to you Devin Harris, I am sorry sir. Brook Lopez will be a bigger part of the offense, and Yi Jianlian appears to have figured out some adjustments he needed to make to successfully play at the NBA level, but Courtney Lee and his mates on the wing are just not ready to scare teams as one-on-one threats (although Terrence Williams will be thrust into the fire and could develop rather quickly). Mikhail D. Prokhorov (the Russian billionaire who just bought this team) better enjoy discussing marketing & real estate developments with Bruce Ratner and Jay-Z for the next year.
Check back on Monday for a rundown of the Western Conference.