What To Watch For: NBA Eastern Conference
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The 2013-14 NBA season gets underway this week. Here are three things to watch for with all 15 Eastern Conference teams.
- Last Hawk standing- Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are gone, but Al Horford remains, the question is for how much longer. He has two years and $24 million left on his contract after this season. It is unlikely Danny Ferry would move him, but if he decides to blow things up he could get a premium for him.
- Can Teague improve?- In his second season as Atlanta’s starting point guard, Jeff Teague averaged close to 15 points and 7 assists a game, which got him a four year $32 million contract. New coach Mark Budenholzer has just spent a decade with Tony Parker, and you have to think Tegaue will get a lot of the freedom Parker has in San Antonio, the question, will he be able to carry that sort of load.
- The next Dirk?- Ok, first round pick Dennis Schroder, is nothing like Dirk Nowitzki, minus the fact that he’s German, he has turned some heads with his athletic ability, and is someone that could be fun to watch on a team that frankly isn’t all that exciting.
- How do they score?- Boston hasn’t been a good offensive team for years, but after losing Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry that offense will get worse especially without Rajon Rondo the first part of the season. Jeff Green scored 14 points per game last season, and you have to think he’s their best scoring option right now. First round pick Kelly Olynyk has gotten rave reviews after a solid summer.
- Will Rondo be traded?- Speaking of Rajon Rondo, there are two majors questions surrounding the point guard. When/if will he play this season and where will he finish the year? If he comes back off his torn ACL and plays well, Boston could get a nice return for a top-shelf point guard with a manageable contract.
- Curse of the college coach- Brad Stevens will try and do what Rick Pitino, John Calipari and others have failed,:win in the NBA. He hasn’t been given much to work with, but the Celtics are committed to him long-term. It is important to note, that while Stevens did come from the college ranks, that is the only thing he has in common with Pitino and Calipari. That might give him a better chance of succeeding.
- Coach Kidd- Last season, Jason Kidd was playing for the Knicks, this season he is not just on the Nets coaching staff, he’s there head coach. It has been a long time since a player became a head coach immediately after retiring. He can’t ease into the job either. The Nets are an older team with big expectations, and their window is closing fast. Kidd made Lawrence Frank his top assistant, which was an excellent move.
- Still D-Will’s team- Despite the additions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams is still this team’s most talented/important player. He’s been known as being a bit of a malcontent and coach killer, just ask Jerry Sloan and Avery Johnson. How he handles all the changes will be a big key to their success. He is still the point guard and will get the most minutes on this team, but the personalities around him are much stronger.
- Limiting minutes- A big challenge for Kidd will be keeping Garnett and Pierce’s minutes down. Garnett should really only play around 20 minutes a game, and Pierce will probably be kept below 30. I expect them to be handled similarly to the way Gregg Popovich handles Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker, that means I don’t expect them to play many back-to-backs, especially in Garnett’s case.
- Major upgrade- They overpaid to get him, but the Bobcats signing Al Jefferson makes an awful offense a lot better. He’s a guy that opposing defenses will actually have to worry about, and that will make everyone else on the floor better, at least on the offensive end. Big Al will have the opposite effect on the other end, but baby steps, ok?
- The other big addition- Charlotte surprised many by taking Cody Zeller with the fourth pick in June’s draft. A lot of people were down on him after a bit of a disappointing sophomore season at Indiana. I didn’t think he was used right at times by Tom Crean who didn’t take advantage of his strengths (athleticism, touch) and tried to make him a back to the basket bruiser. With Jefferson around, I’d expect him to face-up away from the basket much more, and he could be a rookie of the year candidate.
- From the owner’s box to the floor?- You know a Michael Jordan comeback will get mentioned at some point during the season, you just know it.
- Welcome back- Derek Rose is back after missing all of last season. Without the 2011 MVP, the Bulls finished with the fifth best record in the Eastern Conference and won a playoff series. Chicago finished with the best record in the East the last two seasons he played, could they be the biggest threat to Miami?
- Does Deng stay?- Luol Deng has been an all star the last two seasons, but he is a free agent at the end of the season, and the Bulls don’t appear to be interested in signing him to a long-term contract. It is something that could become a distraction at some point during the season, and it will also lead to rumors about a possible trade.
- The next star- Jimmy Butler might’ve been Chicago’s most important player during last year’s playoffs. He started all 12 playoff games after making just 20 starts during the regular season. His defense will never be a question mark, but he continues to improve at the other end it could make Deng more and more expendable.
- Keep guys on the floor- Going back to his one year at Duke and two seasons in the NBA, Kyrie Irving has missed significant time due to injuries. Anderson Varejao hasn’t played more than 31 games since LeBron James left for South Beach, and Andrew Bynum missed all of last season. If those three stay healthy, the Cavs will make the playoffs. If they don’t, it’s back to the lottery.
- Something to prove- Anthony Bennett was a surprise #1 pick in June’s draft. If he is what they think he is, he’ll be a matchup nightmare for opposing small forwards. That is the weakest position on their roster, and while he won’t be counted on early in the season, you have to think Cleveland wants him playing a big role by the all-star break.
- The LeBron card- Maybe he’ll come back, maybe, just maybe.
- Can they shoot enough?- Josh Smith was a great addition who will help them a lot, but they are going to play him at small forward, a prime three point shooting position. Smith can’t shoot threes, and with Chauncey Billup and Brandon Jennings slated to be their starting guards it could be very easy for teams to pack the paint on them.
- Monroe on the move?- Greg Monroe was seen as the primary building block for the Pistons, but with Andre Drummond and Smith on the roster and under contract for awhile, Monroe, who is a free agent after the season could be a prime trade candidate. Trading him would allow Smith to go back to power forward, and Joe Dumars could try and get help at the wing positions.
- Expiring contracts- The inflated contracts of Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey come off the books after this season. Detroit could look to use those contracts to try and trade for someone that could help their attempts to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
- Something to prove- They upset the Knicks and round 2 and pushed Miami to 7 games in the East finals, but the conference appears to be better with the return of Derek Rose and the offseason moves made by Brooklyn, so the road back to the Conference Finals won’t be easy, but they are returning all their key guys, and made some solid additions.
- Help off the bench- The Pacers bench was awful last season, but they addressed it during the summer. First off, they will get Danny Granger back after missing just about all of last season. He has been dealing with a calf injury during the preseason, and may not be ready to start the regular season, but he should be able to help them. The minutes that D.J. Augustine got last season will go to C.J. Watson, and Luis Scola will take the spot of Tyler Hansbrough. Those are both upgrades.
- Limit turnovers- Turnovers were a big reason why Indiana couldn’t beat Miami in the East Finals, and that was mostly due to the point guard position. George Hill is the weak link to their starting lineup, and he has to take better care of the ball. Same for Paul George who is becoming an elite player in the league, but part of the next step for him will be turning the ball over less. Fewer turnovers the Pacers commit, the fewer run-outs teams will get against them, forcing them to score on Indiana’s elite half court defense.
- Chasing History- It has been over a decade since the Lakers three-peat with Kobe and Shaq, but its been over 25 years since a team advanced to the Finals four straight years. That is what Miami is trying to overcome this season. They have three of the best players in the world, but the physical and mental toll the last three seasons have taken could be too much especially in an Eastern Conference that is as good as its been in a long time.
- Last chances?- In 2007, Greg Oden was the first player taken in the draft, in 2008, Michael Beasley was taken second. Now, they are both members of the Heat in what could be the last chance they have to salvage two very disappointing careers. Its unlikely that they make significant contributions, but if Oden can stay healthy he could be a presence for them inside, and if Beasley can get his act together he could be a solid bench player that can come in and provide some offense. On a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade it is worth a shot.
- LeBron’s circus- Guess what? LeBron James can opt out of the last year of his contract after the season, which will make him a free agent. Get ready to hear about that nonstop, especially if Miami has a disappointing year, and Wade’s play continues to decline. It is one of those things the media will be unable to avoid, especially with the possibility of a Cleveland return out there. Oh, and don’t forget about all the Lakers cap space.
- Are the guards good enough?- Last year’s starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis has turned into O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight. Mayo is small, but he can score, but Knight has had two disappointing seasons since being drafted out of Kentucky. They know what they are getting from Mayo, but Knight is the wild card. He has to improve for them to get back to the playoffs.
- Larry Sanders Show- He might be the best player you’ve never heard of, and he is one of the best defenders in the league. Milwaukee gave Larry Sanders a big contract over the summer (4 years/$44 mil), but he will have to play more than 27 minutes per game, especially with Jennings and Ellis gone.
- On the move?- The Bucks are a small market team that play in an old arena. Now that Sacramento will build the Kings a new building it leaves the Bucks as a logical option to relocate to Seattle where there is an ownership group ready to build a brand new arena. The Bucks have history, but take away one playoff run (2001 East Finals appearance) they have been pretty irrelevant for 30 years.
New York Knicks
- Melodrama- Carmelo Anthony is a free agent after this season, and it is highly unlikely he’d ever leave New York, but if the Knicks have a bad year, which given the age of their roster wouldn’t be a huge shock you will hear rumblings about him and the Lakers.
- Do they have anything left?- Amare Stoudemire, Metta World Peace, Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, and Kenyon Martin. All of them are older, but the Knicks are counting on them. New York broke down last season after a solid start, and while they added a few useful pieces, I’m not sure it will be enough to keep up with what Chicago and Brooklyn added.
- The biggest addition- Andrea Bargnani was picked first in the draft 7 years ago, and he’s had a decent career, scoring over 21 points a game three years ago, but he is essentially a perimeter big who can’t rebound or defend. The Knicks were at their best last season when Carmelo Anthony played power forward and Tyson Chandler played center. With that in mind, I’m not sure how Bargnani fits. He can’t play center next to Anthony, but can he guard power forwards?
- O-La-Di-Po- Orlando took Victor Oladipo second in the draft. I love his game, and while he might not put up the prettiest offensive numbers he will make some plays at both ends of the floor that are absolutely breath-taking.
- Where does Jameer end up?- Jameer Nelson is 31 and plays the position that the Magic want Oladipo to play (point guard), so expect him to be dealt. He can still play and would be a big pick up for a team that needs a guard. He’s in year two of a three year contract, but is only guaranteed $2 million next season.
- Can Big Baby come back?- Glen Davis missed most of last season with a foot injury. He played well before the injury, but hasn’t started practicing yet. Orlando would love to be able to showcase him, but even if he is healthy it could be tough to trade him with almost $7 million owed to him next season.
- Make or break for Turner- In 2010, the Sixers took Evan Turner second in the draft behind John Wall and in front of Derrick Favors. Those two players have signed long-term contracts while Turner will be a free agent at season’s end. He’ll probably improve on his career high 13.5 scoring average from last season, but will it be enough to get Philly to lock him up past 2014. He could also be a trade candidate before the deadline.
- Will Nerlens play?- Nerlens Noel was acquired by the Sixers in the Jrue Holliday trade. He fell to sixth in the draft after tearing his ACL in the winter, and there’s a strong possibility that he won’t see any action this season. Other top picks that missed the entirety of their first seasons in the NBA were Greg Oden and Blake Griffin.
- Worst team ever?- The 1972-73 Sixers went 9-73 could this team be worse? There is very little talent on this squad, but that means you could see some very interesting lineup combos from first year coach Brett Brown.
- Decisions, decisions- Toronto gave new GM Masai Ujiri a lot of money in the offseason and he will have to decide if he wants to tear the roster down or build around what he has. Rudy Gay has a player’s option for next season, and Kyle Lowry is a free agent. Either player could be used as a trade chip. Ujiri might also look to move Demar DeRozan, who is early in a contract that pays him too much,
- Year 2 for Jonas- In 2011, the Raptors took Jonas Valanciunas with the fourth pick in the draft. He stayed in Lithuania for a year before making his NBA debut last season. As expected he started slow, but finished the year strong. They hope he can be what Andrea Bargnani wasn’t, and right now, he’s the most important player that they have.
- Lame-duck coach- Dwane Casey is in the last year of a 3-year contract. He has gone 57-91 in his first two seasons with the Raptors, and they guy who hired him (Brian Collangelo) is gone. If you’re going to bet on who the first coach to get fired will be, he could be your guy. It unfortunate because Casey, who was a finalist for the Rockets job a couple of summers ago, is a good coach, but injuries and poor front office have made that job very difficult.
- Build off strong finish- Washington finished the season winning a solid half of its last 50 games after losing 28 of its first 32. They were healthy during that 50 game stretch, and if they can get a full season out of John Wall and Nene there is no reason to think this team can’t challenge for a playoff spot.
- Great guards- The backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal might be the best young backcourt in the league, and their games are suited perfectly for each other. Wall ranks up there with Russell Westbrook as the fastest point guard in the league who can also get to the basket. Beal is a deadly 3-point shooter that will make defenses pay if they collapse down on Wall. Beal is in his second season, while Wall, who signed a five year extension enters his fourth season.
- Going for it- Last season, Emeka Okafor started all but five games for Washington, and averaged close to a double-double, but a herniated disc suffered before training camp could keep him out for half the season. Instead of waiting, the Wizards made a move acquiring Marcin Gortat from Phoenix for a package that includes Okafor and a first round pick in this year’s draft. 2008 was the last time Washington made the playoffs, and this move shows they are serious about ending that futility.