NBA PM: The NBA’s Toughest Division
For much of the past decade, the NBA’s toughest division has been the Southwest. Made up of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets, the Southwest has seen all five of their teams compete for playoff spots more years than not, and teams in the division have won four championships since the turn of the century. During that time, each team but one had an iconic franchise player behind the scenes, with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Yao Ming in Houston, and Chris Paul in New Orleans.
Times marches on, however, and with injuries claiming Yao, age catching up to Duncan, Nowitzki witnessing the dismemberment of his championship team, and Chris Paul now in LA with the Clippers, the Southwest is no longer the most challenging division in the NBA.
The 2012-13 NBA champion is likely going to be a team from the Pacific (the Los Angeles Lakers), the Northwest (the Oklahoma City Thunder), the Central (the Chicago Bulls) or the Southeast (Miami HEAT), but none of those divisions is going to be the toughest to compete against next season, either.
No, the toughest division, in the NBA in 2012-13 is most likely going to be the Atlantic, where all five teams can realistically expect to be in the playoff picture.
Six months ago it looked like the Boston Celtics might be on their way out, with team president Danny Ainge considering blowing up the team at the trade deadline. When the intact Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, it became clear that the team’s core group of veterans still had plenty of fight left in them. All but Ray Allen will be back next season, with a much-improved backcourt rotation featuring Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. The Celtics will be deeper and even younger, making them the odds-on favorite to win the toughest division in the NBA.
The New York Knicks have plenty of star power on their roster, with names like Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and now Jason Kidd leaping off of the game night program, but they still have a lot to prove, especially on the defensive end. Kidd will help that, and reuniting him with fellow Mavericks championship ring bearer Tyson Chandler was a smart move by management, but Kidd doesn’t have much left in the tank and the Knicks need more than two guys committed to playing great defense.
The most expensive team in the NBA next season will be the Brooklyn Nets; there is no question about that. Either “luxury tax” doesn’t translate into Russian or the team’s new owner simply doesn’t care about the cost of winning. Even with all of the money tied up in Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace, do those four stars make the Nets the team to beat in the East? Truthfully, they may not even have home court advantage in the first round. But they will be a playoff team, and they will also be one of the more interesting teams to watch in 2012-13.
A couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia 76ers looked like they might be headed for the lottery. The plan, as they were saying at the time, was to start Kwame Brown and Spencer Hawes in the front court, and that sounded like a recipe for ping pong balls, for sure. Since then, however, the team has acquired Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson and looks more like a team that could challenge for home court advantage. Some things still have to go right, of course, such as Evan Turner taking a significant step forward next season, but at the very least the Sixers are going to be back in the playoffs behind Andrew Bynum’s projected dominance.
The only team that appears to be on the bubble in the Atlantic is the Toronto Raptors, though by the looks of their roster they should be very much in the mix for the East’s final playoff spot. Kyle Lowry was a brilliant (and highway robbery cheap) addition at point guard, Jonas Valanciunas is expected to have a tremendously positive impact on the team, and a healthy Andrea Bargnani will also be huge for the Raptors. Add to the mix a promising rookie in Terrence Ross, and the NBA’s lone Canadian team looks to be a playoff threat for the foreseeable future.
Again, the likely NBA champions won’t hail from the Atlantic Division, though one could always step up and surprise us. That said, there is no tougher division in the Atlantic, the only NBA division that could potentially see all five team qualify for postseason play.
Pacers Ready To Contend?
Ok, Ok, I know . . .I heard you. When I mentioned the likely contenders in the section above, Pacers fans jumped out of their chairs because I didn’t mention Indiana. See, here’s the reason – I was saving a whole section for you today!
So calm down, relax, here we go.
The Indiana Pacers have been one of the most impressive stories in the NBA over the last three seasons, as they have quietly gone from lottery team to playoff team and playoff team to possible contender. The management team of Larry Bird and David Morway did quite a job of overhauling the roster, setting up the incoming management team of Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard to take the team back to prominence. They didn’t make any splashy offseason moves, which is why they are largely under the national media radar, but their OKC-like approach to building a champion in a small market could yield serious fruit in 2012-13.
Last week the bulk of the Pacers team gathered in Los Angeles for a team workout, and Indianapolis Star columnist Mike Wells offer this analysis of the event:
The Pacers – obviously – didn’t go and spend big bucks on free agents around the league. They believe they can close the gap with the Heat by keeping their core players (re-signing restricted free agents Roy Hibbert and George Hill) together.
They’re going with that mind frame until proven it can’t work.
That’s why they got together for workouts last week in Los Angeles.
About eight players, the entire coaching staff and the training staff were out there. More players would have shown up if not for prior commitments. The Pacers checked with the NBA to make sure they weren’t breaking any rules. They were only allowed to have six players on the court at a time.
“That’s a sign of a team that wants to improve,” president Donnie Walsh said.
They worked out and also played pickup games against other NBA players at the Clippers practice facility.
It was also a bonding experience for them. They joked, went out to dinner, hung out together at the hotel.
It’s anybody’s guess how many extra wins the time together in Southern California will get the Pacers next season, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Pacers offer us another look at a small market team looking to make good in a league dominated by the large markets. The Pacers will not be a team that pays luxury tax, and they will not be a team that chases the big names in free agency. Instead, they will look to draft well, develop their young talent, and add a key piece here and there to make the mix just right.
We still have a couple of seasons before the worst (best?) of the new CBA luxury tax penalties hit, which is why we’re seeing power grabs in Los Angeles and Miami. They’re going to spend while they can, knowing that the days of simply outspending the rest of the league as a method of contending are about to come to a screeching halt. In the mean time, the teams that follow in the footsteps of the Oklahoma City Thunder, counting heavily on continuity and chemistry, will already be poised to compete in the new NBA economy.
Count the Indiana Pacers among those teams. If Paul George and Roy Hibbert, in particular, take the next developmental step, it could be enough to get the Pacers into the Eastern Conference Finals. From there, anything can happen.
Rubio Give Rookie Season Rave Reviews
There was a period of time – a scary period of time – when fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves were forced to wonder if they would ever see the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA Draft take the court in a Timberwolves uniform.
Rumors were what rumors are, with varying levels of veracity to reports that Rubio wouldn’t come to the NBA, maybe just wouldn’t come to Minnesota, that he preferred New York, that he wasn’t making good progress in Spain, and others. Fortunately, Rubio did, indeed, come to the NBA in 2011 and donned his Timberwolves jersey with great enthusiasm.
Before an injury ended Rubio’s season prematurely, he had the Timberwolves on pace to make the playoffs, and the sky appears to be the limit for both Rubio and his team.
“It was so much fun,” Rubio told SLAM Magazine recently. “After a tough year in Spain, I was thinking about how fun basketball was when I was a kid. But the last year wasn’t like this. Since my first game in Minnesota, when the team was together, it was a different feeling. I felt freedom again. It was amazing.”
As for the rumors, Rubio never paid them much mind. He was focused on his dream of playing in the NBA.
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Rubio. “People can ask, people can talk, people can make their opinions, but I’m the one who will have my own opinion. I was ready in ’09 when I entered the Draft, but I couldn’t come. Finally, last year I was making a big step coming here to the League. Maybe it wasn’t after my best year in Spain, but I was sure I could play here, because when we played the US in the Olympic Games, that’s the kind of style I wanted to play. Seeing a lot of NBA the last couple of years, I was thinking about playing here some day. It finally came.”
Rubio admitted the pressure to win is much higher in Spain, and that played a role in his struggles during his last season overseas.
“I had a lot of pressure, even when I came here, and I was worried about that. It was a different pressure over there, because you must win, no matter how. Sometimes you prefer to have fun. Sometimes you lose, but if you had fun, for me that’s the most important thing, and the same level as winning. So sometimes when I lose one of them, I lose my identity, you know?
That’s not to say that Rubio puts fun over winning, however.
“I’m trying to have fun all games. And I know it’s tough, I know it’s hard when you’re fighting for a championship or something like that, that you must win no matter what you do. I had that experience, that different experience, when you win and you have fun and you win and you don’t have fun. It’s so much fun when you’re winning and having fun. It’s like…good memories.”
In particular, Rubio enjoyed playing with Kevin Love, who had his best year as a pro last season.
“He was balling,” said Rubio. “I’ve played with [Juan Carlos] Navarro in his top moments, but it reminded me a little bit of when Navarro was hot in last year’s European Championships: You’d hit him, and no matter how he could shoot it, he’s gonna make it. It was like playing pick and roll with somebody that you know he’s gonna make a three, if you shoot he’s gonna take the rebound. It’s like a joker in your pocket that you can play.”
What Timberwolves fans care most about, of course, is the status of Rubio’s injured knee, and he’s making good progress.
“Feeling better. The first six weeks was tough because I couldn’t walk, couldn’t put any weight on it, so it was pretty boring. But right now I can walk, lift some weights, but under control. But it’s hard watching the playoffs and all you can do is go to the court and sit with the ball.”
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