by Ian Kollar
Touché, Tony. I think we owe some good ol’ war stories before this whirlwind week of previews is over. By the way, could I call you by your true basketball name, T.O.? Okay, so only I called you that, but still. I shouldn’t talk since I was never the WAZL Player of the Game like you, though.
Anyway, here’s where the previews get a bit cloudy. This group is one where you could probably roll dice or pick logos out of a hat or something and come up with 10-6 in any order. A lot of these previews have to do with health. One injury to a key player could screw everything up and it seems to do that every year, so keep your eyes peeled. Meanwhile, there are some old faces in new places – Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in the Motor City, Mike Miller and Randy Foye in Washington, Hedo Turkoglu in Toronto. How these players mesh with teams who all contended last year (except for the Wizards) remains to be seen, but that’s why the season is 82 games long.
10. DETROIT PISTONS (Last year: 39-43)
39-43 was a record that got the Pistons into the playoffs last year. And that was after trading Chauncey Billups and benching Allen Iverson. That record wasn’t overachieving, it was more “par for the course” when you take away a pair of All-Star point guards and hand the reins to Rodney Stuckey.
Now I know what you’ll say: AI was a cancer. Sure, let’s go with that. But also remember who was dealing with him: Michael Curry. He of 0 years of head coaching experience and roughly four years removed from playing on the same court as many of the players he tried to coach. Even mild-mannered Rip Hamilton blamed Curry for last season’s poor showing, so they must’ve been onto something.
In the offseason, the Pistons got John Kuester as a new head coach, and he’ll help the offense flow much better than Curry. Free agent prizes Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva will help in that sense, too. Rookie Austin Daye is intriguing but raw, while fellow first-year player Jonas Jerebko will bring some energy to the second unit headed by a bouncy Jason Maxiell.
But this isn’t your older brother’s Detroit. They aren’t a scary defensive team anymore; their best perimeter defender, Tayshaun Prince, is still great, but otherwise they’ve rehashed Ben Wallace and are banking on guys like center Kwame Brown and guard Will Bynum to hold down opposing stars. That’s not going to happen. Gordon and Villanueva, along with Hamilton, Prince and Stuckey, will all likely average double figures but none of that will matter since “defense wins championships.”
9. TORONTO RAPTORS (Last year: 33-49)
After a rough 2008-09, Jay Triano now has a full year to work. Unfortunately, the Raptors’ record with him at the helm last year (25-40) was not an improvement over Sam Mitchell’s (8-9) despite varying sample sizes. Irregardless, the moves Toronto made in the offseason weren’t exactly gamebreakers. They were nice moves, but not ones that take a lottery-bound team and turn it into a Cinderella-esque title contender.
Online basketball fans love them some Toronto Raptors. One of the forums I frequent (and keep reminding myself to post on), RealGM.com, has a demographic breakdown of about 60% Raptors fans, 15% Lakers fans, 15% Celtics fans and 10% for the rest of the league. So I hear it a lot. “Chris Bosh is staying in Toronto after they make the conference finals this year!” “Hedo Turkoglu is going to average 20 points and be the point forward our Euro-centric team needs!” “Andrea Bargnani is going to have a breakout year!”
Okay, I agree on that last one. But for 6’11, he can’t rebound. For all that Jose Calderon does with the ball, he probably couldn’t guard my brother, a 5’4 freshman point guard.
Marco Belinelli, DeMar DeRozan and Jarrett Jack are a good combo to play at shooting guard, while the ageless Rasho Nesterovic, Reggie Evans and springy Amir Johnson are decent frontcourt depth. But there’s a lot of ifs and not a lot of certainty north of the border, and needless to say I’m just not feeling this team.
8. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (Last year: 41-41)
Ah, now we’re talking. This is a team I’ve seen more than enough of to analyze. This is MY team on the East Coast. And I can tell you all without trepidation that it’s going to be one of those years.
If you’re an Eagles fan, you’ll be able to relate here. You know that “punched in the stomach” feeling you had when Oakland beat you a few weeks back? That happens to me every time Samuel Dalembert drops a pass. And Andre Iguodala pulls up for a jumpshot outside of 17 feet. And Thaddeus Young plays 36 minutes and only takes 8 shots. And so on, and so on.
Eddie Jordan, the new coach, implements his Princeton offense. It’s a thing of beauty when run correctly but also requires a high IQ to execute. Anyone who’s been around me long enough knows what I think of the Sixers’ collective basketball IQ. There are going to be nights when they have more turnovers than assists. They still can’t shoot the three-pointer all that well; Jason Kapono helps a bit but not enough. This group is traditionally a slow starting one, so I can definitely see them going 6-12 by the end of November despite a mild schedule.
Elton Brand, coming off another injury-plagued year, probably won’t ever be the player GM Ed Stefanski paid for, but I would take 16 and 8 from him and a combined 16 and 8 from Marrese Speights and Jason Smith off the bench and not complain. When it comes to June, this team is going to be good enough defensively, cohesive enough in the Princeton and athletic enough in transition to nip Detroit and Toronto for the final playoff spot (from my homer point of view).
7. CHICAGO BULLS (Last year: 41-41)
Derrick Rose is going to be very, very good, very, very soon. And if the old cliché of great players making their teammates better holds true, this Chicago outfit will be improved from last season.
Joakim Noah made strides at the end of last year. So did Tyrus Thomas. Midseason veteran pickups John Salmons and Brad Miller helped solidify the lineup that frantically played its way to a late season playoff run before falling to Boston in a valiant effort (18-11 after the All-Star break). Everyone is going to be better this year except for Miller, who might be showing some age at 33. Ben Gordon is gone and his scoring will be missed, but Luol Deng is back from injury and Jannero Pargo is back from a European vacation (with Russian and Greek teams); both will score some points and help make up for some of what they lost in Gordon.
Don’t sleep on a pair of rookie forwards either. James Johnson is going to be a stud and Taj Gibson is a long-armed defender who can help right away. Last year’s top rook, Rose, has returned with an improved jumper and could very well average 20 points and 7 assists per game. Also, don’t forget another rookie last year: head coach Vinny Del Negro. Chicago fans weren’t too happy with him early in the year but he has grown on me as I watched his gumption during their solid playoff performance and I have no reason to believe this squad – and coach – isn’t on the rise.
6. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (Last year: 19-63)
A dismal season, an injured superstar and a top 5 draft pick usually leads to a nice turnaround the year after. The San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan immediately come to mind. The Wizards, though, made out like veritable gangbusters by flipping their pick for a pair of guards to shore up their rotation and are now back where they were before Gilbert Arenas was injured: in contention, right below the upper echelon of Eastern Conference teams.
Arenas, by all accounts, is fairly healthy at this point and should be 100% before the new year. Antawn Jamison is out right now, but Caron Butler, Mike James and newcomers Fabricio Oberto, Mike Miller and Randy Foye will more than make up for his absence in a variety of ways. Best of all is the health of Brendan Haywood, who isn’t the world’s most talented big man but can block shots, defend and rebound with legitimate size.
New head coach Flip Saunders is a players’ coach who will get his veterans’ respect and be able to motivate youngsters like Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. Their improvement, especially McGee’s, is critical to the Wiz making a run in the playoffs. They’ll be a sound offensive team and will peak at the right time – around the All-Star break when everyone is (hopefully) healthy, so they could give starters some rest and get some younger players experience without falling in the standings.
This is one potentially scary team who could very well be a conference finalist. At the same time, injuries could deplete this roster once again and they could be the one of the worst teams in the East. Still, as an Orlando or Cleveland or Boston I wouldn’t want to draw this first round playoff assignment.