Welcome to MinnPost’s coverage of the 2014-15 National Basketball Association season. Today we’ll look at the Eastern Conference, where, spurred by the homecoming of Lebron James, a new “big three” in Cleveland is expected to joust for supremacy with a retooled Chicago Bulls squad getting former MVP Derrick Rose back from two knee injuries.
Tuesday, when the NBA regular season begins with 24 of its 30 teams in action, we’ll look at the Western Conference. And Wednesday will feature my preview for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who open their season in Memphis that night.
Both the Eastern and Western Conference previews are organized according to how I think teams will be seeded in their respective conferences at the end of the season. The top eight in each make the playoffs.
On a personal note, I appreciate readers coming by and encourage intelligent feedback in the comments section. The wisdom and willingness for dialog among my readers is a prime motivation for this endeavor—that and getting to dwell on the most enjoyable game in the world. The quality of writing and statistical analysis about hoops has never been better, and I am thankful that you include this site—which enthusiastically embraces both analytics and “eye test” observation—in your menu. We are in a golden era of the NBA.
And with that, let’s get started:
Maniacal coach Tom Thibodeau is loathe to put incompetence on the court, even if that means burning out his best players to avoid it. Fortunately, Thibs will deploy the deepest and most balanced roster of his five-year tenure in Chicago this season. Pau Gasol is a perfect fit in a frontcourt rotation that includes the hot-wired Joakim Noah, the defensive sinew of Taj Gibson and talented Euro Nikola Mirotic. Sharpshooting rookie Doug McDermott adds depth to the wing duo of Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy. Kirk Hinrich is a reliable backup at both guard slots and Aaron Brooks is a capable point guard reserve. Oh, and Derrick Rose is back. If he stays healthy, the Bulls will score in numerous ways and ride Thibodeau’s suffocating defense to the best regular-season record in the NBA.
Lack of depth and a merely mediocre defense will prevent the Cavs from overtaking the Bulls—at least until the playoffs. Lebron James goes from being the youngest of the big three in Miami to the eldest among Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland’s holy trinity. In 2010, Lebron joined a Heat franchise that had recently won a ring. He comes back to a Cavs franchise that hasn’t won more than 33 games in any of the four seasons he was gone; a squad where clueless chucklehead Dion Waiters has led the team in field goal attempts during the preseason and coach David Blatt is a rookie not only to the Cavs but to the NBA. All that said, James, Love and Irving are going to be scary-good together. Add in a healthy Anderson Varejao and they are the favorites to win it all next June.
A year ago there was the distinct possibility Toronto’s roster would be razed and coach Dwane Casey fired. But after forward Rudy Gay was dealt early in the season, the Raptors flourished to their best-ever record. The off-season was about consolidating those gains, as the Raps signed their top free agent Kyle Lowry to a fat contract (along with Lowry’s backup, Greivis Vasquez), brought back former Raptor James Johnson, and traded for gunner Lou Williams. Demar DeRozan is the holdover All-Star, Amir Johnson the low-post stalwart on defense, Jonas Valanciunas the slowly developing seven-footer, Terence Ross the athletic tease. Lowry and DeRozan had career years—but are at a prime age to either maintain or improve those performances.
The mileage on the remaining heart of this post-Lebron roster is troubling. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have logged 11 seasons and tagged on the gantlet of four straight postseason runs to the NBA Finals. Luol Deng has 10 seasons under his belt, including a couple when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau rarely sat him. Aged vets off the bench include Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, and a Danny Granger permanently dinged by knee woes. Losing Lebron makes this season a referendum on coach Erick Spoelstra’s ability to devise systems that wring the most out of his venerable but vulnerable crew. I’m bullish on Spo, who also has the versatile and underrated forward Josh McRoberts and the point guard trio of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier at his disposal. The Heat will not only make the playoffs, but Spoelstra’s ingenuity plus the gritty pride of the greybeards will have them hosting a first-round series.
The departure of Trevor Ariza to Houston plus the preseason injury to Bradley Beal messes with the perimeter chemistry the Wizards flashed in their ’14 postseason. But Marcin Gortat will continue to finish pick-and-rolls as well as any center in the NBA and cold-blooded shot-maker Paul Pierce should fit better here than he did in Brooklyn. The Wiz are perilously thin with Ariza gone and Beal and Martell Webster (another back surgery) absent for at least a month or two to start the season. Last year’s first-round playoff triumph provides a crucial confidence boost. But unless Nene plays through his inevitable nagging injuries and reaches 2000 minutes for the first time in four years, and All-Star point guard John Wall takes another step into stardom, it’s hard to see Washington paying off on its still-tantalizing potential.
Atlanta played at a 45-win pace with Al Horford in the lineup, where he was half of a Swiss army knife front-court duo with Paul Millsap. Meanwhile, second-year coach Mike Budenholzer will spread the floor for three-pointers (the Hawks led the East in three point attemps last year) and the penetration of point guard Jeff Teague. Incoming free agent Thabo Sefolosha gives them another wing stopper beside DeMarre Carroll, and first-rounder Adrien Payne is a four-year collegian projected as a stretch power forward, spelling Millsap. Racist remarks from the now-resigned majority owner and now-suspended general manager are overrated as an in-season distraction; the situation isn’t as noxious as the virus that is Donald Sterling. If anything, the controversy and subsequent punishments may rouse a notoriously apathetic fan base.
Charlotte’s ballyhooed roster upgrade is at least slightly overrated, as departed forward Josh McRoberts is a better facilitator and long-range shooter than incoming swingman Lance Stephenson; incoming forward Marvin Williams is mediocrity incarnate; and top draft pick Noah Vonleh seems too raw to make an impact. But trust last year’s gain: Rookie coach Steve Clifford vaulted Charlotte from dead-last to fifth in fewest points allowed per possession, and that was with elite low-post scorer but slow-footed defender Al Jefferson added to the mix. Clifford now has two high-caliber wing stoppers in Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to pair on defense. But it is how the combustible Stephenson feels about, and acts upon, his role in the offense between Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker that will ultimately determine his value and the team’s improvement.
Lionel Hollins is the Nets’ fourth coach in three years. Center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams are the only two players that have been on the roster the prior three seasons—and have been ravaged by injuries for most of that time. This team is old but not collectively familiar with each other. It’s a billionaire’s plaything, sabotaged by the need for instant gratification. When healthy, Lopez is a top-five center, and Joe Johnson remains a deadly outside shooter, a reliable go-to scorer. Forwards Mason Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic are at worst solid back-ups and Jarrett Jack can be paired in the backcourt with D-Will for small-ball matchups. But the Nets are destined to disappoint and be scattered in favor of Plan B when their monster contracts expire.
The aimless decision-making and inconsistent play of center Dwight Howard since he and coach Stan Van Gundy parted ways out of Orlando two years ago has burnished Van Gundy’s reputation as an excellent, if unconventionally brash, manager of both human beings and Xs and Os. The Pistons made Van Gundy one of only three men simultaneously ruling a team’s front office and sideline, joining Gregg Popovich and Flip Saunders. He’s expected to parent the famously immature shot selection of forward Josh Smith and his backcourt doppelganger (minus the quality defense), Brandon Jennings. His experience with Howard should help him motivate or properly de-emphasize Greg Monroe, a talented center-forward who already has one foot out of Detroit. And he is expected to spread the floor with outside shooters while developing center Andre Drummond into a Howard-like force of nature down near the hoop.
The preseason indicated that rookie forward Jabari Parker is the goods. Newly acquired point guard Kendall Marshall is a crucial upgrade at ball distribution over Brandon Knight. Highly paid frontcourt mates Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders can’t regress any further than their embarrassing performances in 2013-14 and are logical candidates for improvement. Perhaps best of all, the freaky Greek Giannis Antetokounmpo is out of his teens and ready to take the NBA by storm as a 6-11 swingman. Throw in rich new owners willing to invest locally in a new arena and the only bad news for the Bucks since the end of last season is the boorish manner in which they replaced coach Larry Drew with the egocentric Jason Kidd.
New York Knicks
If you think the star-laden Cavs face a big adjustment, consider the Knicks. They are moving from a coach (Mike Woodson) justly notorious for his isolation plays to the triangle offense favored by incoming zen deity Phil Jackson and his majordomo, new coach Derek Fisher. The triangle’s systemic read-and-react decision-making will reduce the influence of new point guard Jose Calderon, traditionally among the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. It renders addicted freelancer J.R. Smith obsolete. A team with Carmelo Anthony will always be dangerous on offense. But the Knicks need to be an offensive juggernaut because they don’t figure to stop anybody at the other end of the court.
The drop-off for the Pacers from last year’s wing tandem, Paul George and Lance Stevenson, to this year’s, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, is roughly akin to the fall Wily Coyote experiences in every roadrunner cartoon. Power forward David West is a consummate pro but no longer (if ever) a viable number one option on offense. Point guard George Hill has not grown his game since leaving San Antonio. Leviathan center Roy Hibbert looked like a shell of his All-Star self in the second half of last season (and much of the playoffs). The injury to George, a budding superstar, has put a Pacers team that finished first in the East last season into a tailspin that will tempt them to go into tanking mode for the rare chance to get a lottery pick in the draft.
The Celtics are biding their time in rebuilding. It is a foregone conclusion that they will trade frequently (and currently) injured star point guard Rajon Rondo at some point this season as a means of securing either a quality rim protector or a dynamic wing scorer. Meanwhile, second-year coach Brad Stevens will gamble on a heavier diet of three-pointers to improve an offense ranked 27th in points per possession last season. Of the new crew of chuckers, Marcus Thornton can fill it up from outside but not defend, while rookie Marcus Smart — Rondo’s heir apparent — is the opposite. Combo guard Avery Bradley and maturing power forward Jared Sullivan look like solid rotation players, and at minimum Smart is expected to join them. But the C’s need a star. At the moment, last year’s leading scorer Jeff Green is the pretender and Rondo is the bait.
In the highly competitive Southeast Division, the only sure thing is that the Magic will find themselves in the cellar. That was the consensus even before second-year guard and expected team leader Victor Oladipo had his face broken in the preseason. The other two players who led Orlando in playing time last season, Aaron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson, were traded and waived, respectively. A pair of rookies — point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Aaron Gordon — are likely starters beside low-post horse Nikola Vucevic and swingman Tobias Harris. The roster contains youthful athleticism and teaching fundamentals is the forte of third-year coach Jacque Vaughn. But there’s a long way to go.
The Sixers have taken tanking — the shady but arguably shrewd philosophy that purposefully losing now will help stockpile better assets for the future — to such an obvious extreme that the NBA owners nearly changed the draft lottery system during the off-season. For the second year in a row, Philadelphia drafted a player they knew would be sidelined most of his rookie year due to injury. They have divested themselves of any credible veteran leadership. Three of their top four salaried players didn’t log a single minute in the NBA last season. The highest paid Sixers who actually played in 2013-14 are former Wolves Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved. All of this may pay off for Sixers GM Sam Hinkie in the future. But right now, the Philadelphia 76ers are a bad joke of a basketball team.