Monday, October 26, 2009

Above the Rim: NBA Season Preview

The NBA season kicks off with the Cavaliers and the Celtics tomorrow night in a rematch of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals (the Magic derailed the Celtics to ruin another matchup in the 2009 Conference Finals). This year’s offseason was fairly quiet with a lot of movement early and an unusual lack of off the court drama.

The contenders in the East and the West got richer this year without any teams making moves to join their ranks (the Pistons picking up Ben Gordon and Charlie Villaneuva should be enough to get them into the playoffs, but they will lose in the first round).

  • The Cavaliers picked up Shaquille O’Neal early in the offseason to start the movement. While many seem to think that Shaq won’t perform at a high level, I think they are underestimating the Big Aristotle. He was an all-star last year in Phoenix averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and Cleveland will be able to keep him fresh with Zydrunas Ilgauskas backing him up at center. Also, even if Shaq does not match his numbers from last year and settles around 14 points and 7 rebounds, it is still a large improvement over what the Cavs got from Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic last season. The Cavaliers then added Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to increase their depth and athleticism at the shooting guard, small forward, and power forward positions. The Cavs are also expecting former Celtic Leon Powe back by the all-star break after off-season knee surgery.

  • The Celtics also improved by adding Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to their bench and, currently, are healthy after losing Kevin Garnett down the stretch. I think Wallace will be an effective pickup, but will not match his 12 points and 7.4 rebounds from last season with less looks on offense. I have always liked Daniels and he has proven he can be effective off the bench.

  • The Orlando Magic had surprisingly high turnover on their roster after winning the Eastern Conference last season. The net result: Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, and Courtney Lee are all gone after contributing to the Magic’s run in the playoffs and are replaced by Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Anderson. I feel the Magic are worse off for the changes. Their bench is weaker with Mickael Pietrus stepping into the starting lineup at small forward because there isn’t an explosive player on the bench to replace him. Bass will help at the power forward and Anderson can shoot, but neither can match how effective Pietrus was. Lee was poised to break out this season and should have a good year in New Jersey where he will get more looks on offense. Carter is good, but he is getting older and has peaked. Swapping him for Turkoglu in the starting lineup also eliminates the matchup problems that a 6’11” point forward like Turkoglu created. His flexibility was a big reason why the Magic were able to knock off the Cavs last year. With a more traditional offense, the Magic lose that advantage and will struggle with both the Cavs and Celtics.

  • The Lakers were the champions and then swapped Trevor Ariza, a potential star, for Ron Artest, an established star who I thought deserved top finish in the top 5 for MVP last season. The Lakers may also get something from Adam Morrison off the bench this season after getting him from Charlotte last season. After getting Shannon Brown from the Cavs, Brown developed into a nice role player within a season, and Morrison could be on track to follow in his footsteps.

Off-court drama in the NBA this off-season that could carry over into the regular season.

  • How is the Stephen Jackson situation in Golden State going to unfold? After signing an extension, Jackson wants out for New York, Cleveland, or a team in Texas. The Cavs don’t have the pieces to make it happen and New York wants to maintain cap room for the 2010 free agent class. So where will Jackson end up…

  • Toronto? The rumor a few weeks ago was a trade that would send Jackson to the Raptors for Chris Bosh. Bosh is a free agent in 2010 and is probably on his way back to the states. Toronto may try to cut its losses and get something back for Bosh if they are not in contention. However, the Raptors picked up Turkoglu this off-season and should be able to make the playoffs. Also, if they trade Bosh for Jackson, their leading rebounder from last season would be Andrea Bargnani, a 7 footer who plays more like a shooting guard instead of a post player, with only 5.3 rebounds per game. I look for Bosh to stay put in Toronto until at least the all-star break when the front office will have to evaluate how the season is going.

  • Delonte West in Cleveland broke the silence of the off-season when he was arrested outside of Washington D.C. with pistols on his ankle and in his waistband, and a shotgun in a guitar case on his back. West left the team last year in training camp to get help with depression and bi-polar disorder. Supposedly, he was off his medication at the time of the arrest and is back on it now. Based on last season, West should be ok once the season gets started; he seems to cope better when he is around the other Cavs as he had his best season last year. However, the Cavs will probably have to play without him for a while as he will probably get suspended for a few games for his arrest.

Where is LeBron going?

  • This story has been relatively quiet during the off-season as the economy will probably lower the salary cap next season restricting the number of teams that can offer him a full contract, or offer LeBron and another player max contracts. While the New York media, especially the New York Post, likes to write articles about why LeBron is coming to the Knicks, the rest of the country seems to think that LeBron will be back in Cleveland with an extension after the season. While I think that is probably what will happen, I still expect a steady stream of articles about LeBron leaving every time the Cavs play the Knicks or the Nets.

So what do we have to look forward to this season?

  • LeBron James will win his second straight MVP award. His scoring may dip a bit as he shares the ball with Shaq and the other newcomers, but his rebounds and assists could jump as he plays off the ball a little more. I expect his assists to go up especially with Shaq in the post and Parker, whom coach Mike Brown said was the best shooter he has seen since Reggie Miller, on the wing. The Cavs were a 66 win team last season and improved, so they should be the top team in the East again which will help James in the MVP vote. Dark horse- Brandon Roy will lead the Blazers to the second best record in the West and will become one of the league’s elite players.

  • Blake Griffin will run away with the Rookie of the Year. Last year’s best college player will get plenty of opportunities to produce for the dysfunctional Clippers and should average close to 15 points and 8 rebounds. A double-double average is an outside possibility as well. Second round surprises- Pitt Panthers Dajuan Blair and Sam Young were both productive and fundamentally sound players in college that will produce in the NBA this season. Blair will be a force in the post off the bench for the Spurs and Young should get looks for the Grizzlies at multiple positions.

  • The Cavaliers and Celtics will play a classic series to decide the Eastern Conference championship for the second time in three years. This series will probably come down to who has home court advantage, but the Cavaliers are younger overall and have a little more depth on the bench and will be able to avoid and overcome injuries better than the Celtics. The series will go to seven games, but the Cavs should make their second appearance in the NBA Finals in four years where they will play …

  • The LA Lakers. The Lakers are head and shoulders above every team in the West. It is kind of like when Larry Bird asked the other 3-point shooters who was going to finish second behind him at the 3-point shootout; there are talented teams out West, but this race is basically already decided. The only team I expect to give the Lakers trouble are the emerging Blazers. They played LA tough in the playoffs last season and should improve with another year of experience. I expect the Blazers to take the Lakers to six or seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

  • In the NBA Finals, the NBA will finally have its Kobe-LeBron matchup. While the Lakers have the experience and may be the better team on paper, this series is too close to call. I would probably give the Lakers a 60-40 advantage today (which kills me as a Clevelander), but this series could go either way if LeBron or Kobe gets hot or if Shaq gets an adrenaline boost from playing against Kobe again.

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