NBA@2: NBA East’s Top Five Teams
The vast majority of offseason moves around the NBA are now in the rearview. Free agency has largely played out, the big names who are going to switch jerseys have done so, and the only unresolved deal that could have repercussions across the league is the one involving Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. Even so, if Howard is traded he could very well end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers, and they’ll be picked by many to win the West with or without Dwight.
Predicting the Western Conference, where it seems as though half of the teams in the mix have at least some marginal chance of reaching the NBA Finals, is an extremely difficult proposition. Predicting the East, on the other hand, is not nearly so daunting.
If Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose were healthy, it would be very easy to pick the Chicago Bulls as the East’s top team in 2012-13. After all, they held the top spot last season even though they played a large part of their schedule without the league’s then-reining MVP. But Rose will not be healthy, and there’s no way to tell how long Chicago will toil without him. They will still make our countdown, but they won’t be in the top spot.
1) The Miami HEAT
Call it the easy choice, given that Miami will be the defending NBA champs, but it’s not necessarily a given that the defending champs will be the top regular season team in their conference. This year, however, it does seem to be a safe bet. Not only did the playoffs show us the evolution of LeBron James into an NBA closer, we also saw Chris Bosh accept and excel in a role as the team’s starting center. Rookie point guard Norris Cole took a significant step forward, which helped, and the way the HEAT have stocked up during the offseason is more than impressive. Former all-stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis coming off the bench? Are you kidding me?? Miami is the team to beat in the East next season.
2) The Chicago Bulls
Rose or no Rose, the Bulls are going to be a very tough team to beat next season. Again, they won 50 games out of 66 despite being without Rose for 27 of those games. Since then they have added some depth and experience of their own, bringing back Kirk Hinrich, drafting Marquis Teague and also adding Nate Robinson. Those three guards together aren’t as good as Rose, but they make up a better pool of talent at the point than Chicago had behind Rose last season. If forwards Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng come in like they have something to prove – which they do – the Bulls could be extremely tough even as Rose looks on for the first part of the season.
3) The Indiana Pacers
As tempting as it is to slip the Boston Celtics into the third slot, the Indiana Pacers have put themselves in a position to hold down the spot they owned when the dust settled on 2011-12. Bringing back center Roy Hibbert was a must, but even more intriguing than Hibbert’s return are the additions of forward Gerald Green and guard DJ Augustin. The one thing Indiana lacked in the playoffs was a player who could put the ball on the floor and make unpredictable things happen, and Green might have finally evolved into that kind of player. He was stunningly good after joining the Nets midway through last season and the Pacers are banking on him picking up where he left off. It’s also reasonable to expect that forwards Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough will come back as better players after another summer of working on their games, and Augustin should feel like he needs to George Hill for the starting point guard role. The Pacers likely have another tweak or two to make, but they’re going to be even tougher this year than they were last, and they were no easy out last year.
4) The Boston Celtics
Leading up to last season’s NBA trade deadline there was a lot of talk that the Celtics were about to be blown up in preparation for being rebuilt. Trade rumors encircled point guard Rajon Rondo, as well as several of the team’s aging veterans, but when the dust settled the team was still in tact. That proved to be a smart move on the part of president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, as the Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and were one win shy of the promise land. Shooting guard Ray Allen is gone, of course, but in his place the Celtics have two significant upgrades. Courtney Lee is a young player who defends both guard positions very well and still has a great deal of upside. Jason Terry is a decorated NBA champion and could be a real key to Boston getting past the Miami HEAT should they meet in the postseason again. Terry’s emotional leadership alone makes Boston better than last season, and his fourth quarter scoring will be huge. If draft picks Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo pan out the Celtics should be just fine come playoff time and they might even challenge Indiana for the third seed.
5) The Brooklyn Nets
Last season the Atlanta Hawks held this spot, and there’s an outside chance they could hold it again, depending on how well new GM Danny Ferry’s facelift turns out. That said, a safer bet is the revamped (and very expensive) Brooklyn Nets. With Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace in the mix the team has a great deal of veteran experience in the starting lineup. If Brook Lopez can stay healthy the Nets also boast one of the NBA’s top five starting centers, and Kris Humphries is one of the more underrated players in the game. MarShon Brooks is looking to build on a solid rookie season and C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans and Jerry Stackhouse are big time x-factor guys. There is a chance that the Nets will challenge this entire field of teams for Eastern Conference supremacy, but if history is any teacher it’s likely to take a while for all the new guys on this team to get on the same page and reach their potential. Keep in mind that the Miami HEAT struggled early in the first year of their Big Three, and that was with an outstanding closer in Dwyane Wade and a freakish athlete in James. The Nets don’t have a clear closer on paper, and it might take some time for them to establish one. Until they do, they’ll have to play catch up behind the playoff-tested squads above.
The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks will almost certainly make the playoffs, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the Toronto Raptors sneak in there, either. It seems inevitable that the Magic will give up their playoff spot when they deal Howard, and Philadelphia may have taken a step back, as well. Still, barring a major upheaval or significant injury, the Eastern Conference’s top five looks pretty well set.
Good Signs For Timberwolves Fans
Last season was one of the most exciting in years for fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had a vision of a playoff team dancing in front of their eyes. Injuries shattered the fantasy, of course, but there is a definite feeling that if the Timberwolves can stay healthy this season they should be in the mix for the Western Conference playoff picture.
Going into the offseason, head coach Rick Adelman wanted more veterans to help accelerate his team’s growth process, and GM David Kahn has done his best to oblige. Three-time all-star Brandon Roy is planning a big comeback with the team, and Russian sensation Andrei Kirilenko is making his NBA return as a member of the Timberwolves, as well.
Whether or not Roy can get his career back on track despite his deteriorating knees remains to be seen, but Kirilenko is showing in Olympic competition that he hasn’t lost a step since leaving the NBA. Kirilenko is the second-leading scorer in Olympic competition, averaging 23.3 points and shooting 68 percent from the field for Russia. Meanwhile, his teammate both in Russia and soon to be on the Timberwolves, Alexy Shved, is leading the Olympics in assists per game, coming in with an 8.3 average. Shved scored 17 points to go with a game-high six assists in Russia’s last game, an impressive win over the NBA-laden Brazilian team.
“I like him,” Kirilenko said of Shved after the win. “He’s growing up. Our whole team is growing up together. I think he’s taking that role very, very seriously, and I think he’s going to keep blossoming.”
International play does not necessarily translate directly to the NBA, but seeing Shved, in particular, play so well for Russia is another great sign for Minnesota. Ricky Rubio is the floor leader of the future, but with Shved preparing to be groomed behind him the Timberwolves should be set for the foreseeable future at point guard. If Kirilenko can get back to playing the style of basketball he played for the Utah Jazz, as he is doing in Olympic competition right now, he could also prove to be a brilliant addition by Kahn.
Milwaukee Bucks Looking for Two Things
As the Milwaukee Bucks finished up their summer league schedule in Las Vegas, Bucks GM John Hammond told HOOPSWORLD that he wasn’t quite finished dealing, and since then it has become pretty clear what, exactly, the Bucks are looking for.
A number of teams have interest in center Joel Przybilla, including the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, but the Bucks are rumored to have the inside track. Przybilla is the best free agent center still on the market and is said to be weighing his options. Przybilla spent the first three seasons of his career in Milwaukee, but also spent parts of eight seasons in Portland, with brief stops in Atlanta and Charlotte along the way.
The Bucks are also in the market for a small forward, and are considering a couple of different players who are still available. Mickael Pietrus is arguably the best small forward still on the market, having spent time in Golden State, Orlando, Phoenix and Boston, and he had some strong performances for the Celtics during their deep playoff run last season. Pietrus is an x-factor kind of player who makes the team better in a lot of little ways.
The Bucks have $4.35 million of their midlevel exception left, as well as the $1.957 bi-annual exception.
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