by Ian Kollar
I actually didn’t find picking the top 5 very hard. It is pretty clear-cut in my mind that the best four teams are Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando in no particular order. Miami might fall and Chicago, Philadelphia or Washington could take their place, but that’s neither here nor there.
This is about contenders.
There are only three legitimate teams primed to compete for the title in each conference. Barring freak injuries or mid-season blockbuster trades, that isn’t going to change. Some teams are willing to take the year off and wait to reap the riches of next offseason; others are hungry but just aren’t there yet. The teams that were at the top last year are back again this year, and have used a variety of ways to improve (or so they think). If the moves pay dividends, the Larry O’Brien Trophy may be back on the East Coast before long.
5. MIAMI HEAT (Last year: 43-39)
Michael Beasley, once he gets his act together, has the potential to be a pretty good combination forward; an Antawn Jamison-lite. Right now, though, he’s more Derrick Coleman than anything…just replace the Coleman scowl with a Beasley look of apathy. Jermaine O’Neal‘s health has also been an issue but he hopes to put that behind him, and despite playing in the league for 14 years, just turned 31. He still might have enough in the tank to play center in the East for 65 games. Joel Anthony, the underrated Udonis Haslem and Jamaal Magloire can handle the other 17 as well as his backup minutes.
Aside from Wade, the backcourt only got stronger. Daequan Cook, who I love as a sixth man, is a year older and hopefully continues improving next to Wade (his career field goal percentages are both under 40%), while Mario Chalmers and veteran Carlos Arroyo bring some stability to the point guard position. Quentin Richardson, Dorell Wright, James Jones and Yakhouba Diawara bring depth to the small forward position as the Heat can go small (Wade at SG, Beasley at PF) or big (Wade at PG, Beasley at SF) depending on matchups and who’s hot (or healthy). They could also very well flip some assets – say, Jones, Anthony and Richardson’s expiring deal to Utah for Carlos Boozer and Kosta Koufos and truly become contenders.
And Tony: don’t ever compare Wade to Brett Favre unless he starts wearing Wranglers to postgame press conferences and retires in the offseason instead of becoming a free agent then signs with the New York Knicks during training camp (Zing!).
4. ATLANTA HAWKS (Last year: 47-35)
People have been forgetting about the Hawks for long enough. Hell, even I forgot them trying to name all 30 teams on one of those quiz web sites a few years back. Most fans can’t even name half their roster.
The team’s slogan for 2009? “Now you know.” Yes, yes I do.
People need to start respecting Atlanta. This was a team that took the 2007 champion Boston Celtics to seven games, then got better. This was the team that knocked Miami out of the playoffs last year before getting swept by Cleveland, then got better.
This is a good basketball team. Not great, but good.
Joe Johnson is an All-Star and leads the team. Despite an underwhelming postseason last year, he is still a top-tier scorer and a decent perimeter defender who can guard 2s and 3s. Josh Smith is just as versatile and just started to realize how effective he can be offensively is he cuts down on jump shots and attacks the basket. The opposite goes to fellow forward Marvin Williams, who helped space the floor with a 35% three point percentage in 2008. The interchangeability of the roster is probably second only to Orlando’s in effectiveness. Johnson and offseason acquisition Jamal Crawford can play both guard spots to accommodate Mike Bibby, Maurice Evans and rookie Jeff Teague, Williams and Josh Smith are hybrid forwards (while Johnson can even play small forward) and Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith are a three-headed monster in the frontcourt.
The roster is deeper than an average fan would think, and if each member of the rotation plays up to the standards they have in the past two seasons, Mike Woodson‘s gang will be in contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs once again.
3. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (Last year: 66-16)
As LeBron James (arguably) gets better, his team’s record will get worse.
66-16 will not happen again; the LeBron-based offense was great last season while John Kuester ran things. Mike Brown will again make this a pretty good defensive group, at least on the perimeter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal together on the floor at the same time is not going to bode well when so many teams play a versatile player at the 4 (and sometimes at the 5; you try and explain to me how either of those guys guards Chris Bosh, Josh Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire or LaMarcus Aldridge).
Speaking of Shaq, I hate to break your heart kind editor sir, but he just doesn’t fit here. He still commands respect in the post but remember that every second the ball is in his hands it is out of LeBron’s. Whether it is intentional or not, he is taking some of the drive-and-dish out of the King’s game.
All in all I think the Cavs overreacted by getting Shaq. That’s like Marc Cuban acquiring a bunch of combo guards like Randy Foye, Leandro Barbosa and Nate Robinson because nobody on the Mavericks could stop Monta Ellis or Baron Davis when Dallas got swept a few years ago. Shaq was acquired for two reasons: to put a body on Dwight Howard (which statistically has worked in the past, I’ll give them that) and to keep LeBron in town.
Anything short of a championship and Cleveland has a potential disaster situation on its hands next offseason. And if Shaq and LeBron clamoring for a Stephen Jackson trade is any sign, I have a feeling I already know the ending to this storybook.
2. ORLANDO MAGIC (Last year: 59-23)
Retooled and reloaded, the Magic are trying to go to back-to-back NBA Finals. Hey, look what it did for the Lakers!
It was dangerous for Orlando to take the chances it did from a chemistry perspective; Hedo Turkoglu was an emotional leader and point forward, Courtney Lee was an unheralded, gritty rookie defender. Rafer Alston filled in admirably for an injured Jameer Nelson. Meanwhile, Vince Carter sat at home with a loser label firmly stapled to his forehead.
Now Carter is in Orlando and Hedo Turkoglu passed through customs into Canada while Lee and Alston were banished to New Jersey. Joining Carter are forwards Ryan Anderson (who is absolutely terrific at what he does), Brandon Bass (who is absolutely terrific at what he does) and Matt Barnes (who is absolutely terr…err…you get the idea). Plus, Nelson is healthy and Howard has been in the gym refining his game. What isn’t there to like?
Detractors of the Magic will point to Stan Van Gundy and his not-so-stellar postseason coaching moves. They’ll point to Howard’s free throw percentage, Carter’s lack of defensive prowess (though he’s no worse than Turkoglu) and the obvious chemistry issues that come with turning over half of a rotation from a team that reached the Finals a year previous.
Orlando wants to win now and they want to contend for the foreseeable future. Last year may have definitely been a fluke in that Boston was ravaged by injuries and Cleveland’s supporting staff disappeared in the playoffs, but Orlando wasn’t leaving anything to chance. If their big offseason gambles pay off, which I feel they will, this is a scary good team and one of the few title contenders.
1. BOSTON CELTICS (Last year: 62-20)
The team that won it all two years ago has reincarnated, and the results so far have been scary good. Kevin Garnett is healthy, Paul Pierce is still a terrific small forward and Ray Allen can still shoot even if everything else has been on the decline.
Take out James Posey and add Marquis Daniels; Daniels does more all-around but Posey was probably a more tenacious defender. Substitute Rasheed Wallace for P.J. Brown (a slight improvement offensively but likely a dropoff defensively) and take away Leon Powe and give extended minutes to Glen Davis as well as Shelden Williams (a wash). Everything else is the same, and Stephon Marbury is no longer in Celtic green. That’s got to be a good thing.
Tom Thibodeau has turned down multiple coaching gigs to stay in Beantown and do what he does best: teach defense. He and Doc Rivers have preached it and the intensity of Garnett has been contagious. They are, year in and year out, the most tenacious team defenders in the league and it shows. In an NBA where one-on-one is emphasized and highlighted, Boston wears individuals down and makes every team work for every basket – almost like a throwback to the “no layups” Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early ’90s that dogged Michael Jordan everywhere he went. The Celts did it to Kobe last year and have also done it to LeBron and Wade in the past; if those three can’t overcome the Celtics’ suffocating D, I see no reason why anyone else can. That is why I am selecting Boston as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Whether they make it to the Finals or go all the way remains for another day…