Saturday, October 17, 2009

Southeast Division Preview

Posted By on Sat, Oct 17, 2009 at 6:53 PM

This little project got sidetracked by other work, but I will finish, although the last batch might not come until after the season tips.

1. Orlando Magic
Conference Rank: 1
Forum Date: Monday, January 25th

Vince Carter: Better than Hedo Turkoglu over the course of a season. But what about when it matters most?
  • Vince Carter: Better than Hedo Turkoglu over the course of a season. But what about when it matters most?
Notes: Last season, the Magic won 59 games, were the best defensive team in basketball, and made it to the NBA Finals. This year, if they can stay reasonably healthy and avoid complacency, they could be even better. The biggest difference for the Magic is adding Vince Carter while letting Hedo Turkoglu go. This seems risky given the memory of Turkoglu's playoff heroics, but Carter is the superior all-around basketball player — a better defender, a better one-on-one scorer, and a better three-point shooter last season. Coming along with Carter is Ryan Anderson, a second-year forward who is an underrated pickup for the Magic, I think. A versatile 6'10", 240-pound forward, Anderson was a decent rebounder (14.1 rebound rate to Rashard Lewis' 8.9) and a solid three-point shooter (37%) as a rookie. He can give the Magic a little bit more conventional toughness at power forward while maintaining their ability to spread the floor around Dwight Howard. Anderson and Brandon Bass (another new acquisition) give the Magic some interesting looks at that position when Lewis is on the bench or back at his original small-forward position. The Magic will also have Jameer Nelson back at the point. I've never been a huge Nelson fan, but there's no denying his breakout regular season last year.
Pivotal Player: How much better can Dwight Howard get? The reigning defensive player of the year and a legit MVP contender, Howard is the magic's lynchpin at both ends of the floor. His ability to shut down the paint defensively allows the Magic to guard opposing shooters closely and his ability to dominate in the paint offensively frees up the Magic's own shooters. And he's 23. For the Magic to break through and win a title, Howard might need to take a final step forward offensively — moving his sub-60% free-throw shooting closer to 70% and becoming a more polished post player.
Griz/Memphis Connection: After sitting out last season rather than join Zach Randolph with the Clippers, Jason Williams flirted with the Knicks (Randolph's prior team) and with a return to the Grizzlies (Randolph's new team) before signing on to stay home and play for the Magic. Here he'll compete with Anthony Johnson for backup minutes behind Jameer Nelson and, if things go well for Orlando, probably won't be used much.

2. Atlanta Hawks
Conference Rank: 4
Forum Date: Tuesday, February 9th

The Hawks need either Josh Smith or Al Horford to make the leap if they want to crash the Easts elite.
  • The Hawks need either Josh Smith or Al Horford to make "the leap" if they want to crash the East's elite.
Notes: The Hawks were a good, solid team last season and should be even better this season. The Hawks won 47 games, advanced to the second round of the playoffs, were 10th in the league offensively, and 11th defensively. All of their core players return and all of them are either in their prime or headed that way. The team's offseason moves were minor but potentially significant: Jamal Crawford is essentially a more talented version of departed bench gunner Flip Murray and veteran power forward Joe Smith should be a good addition to what was a thin frontcourt rotation a year ago.
Pivotal Player: The problem for the Hawks is that they may be in limbo — clearly ahead of the middle teams in the East but well below the top three of Orlando, Boston, and Cleveland. And several of their players are either at their peak (Joe Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, Crawford) or on the downside (Mike Bibby). For the Hawks to break through it will require a big leap from somebody. Since I don't have much faith in Marvin Williams' upside, I think it has to be either Josh Smith or Al Horford. Both are terrific 23-year-old athletes with versatile defensive skills, but both are also undersized for the positions they are asked to play and too raw offensively. Horford improved his shooting percentage, assist ratio, and scoring rate in his second season. If he can continue to become more of an offensive threat and the Hawks can find a way to get him more minutes at his natural power forward position instead of as an undersized center, then I think Horford still has a chance to emerge as an all-star caliber player.
Griz/Memphis Connection: None of note.

3. Washington Wizards
Conference Rank: 5
Forum Date:Monday, December 28th

Look for new coach Flip Saunders to have the Wizards offense humming and defense hidden — at least until the playoffs.
  • Look for new coach Flip Saunders to have the Wizards' offense humming and defense hidden — at least until the playoffs.
Notes: With season-crushing injuries to offensive anchor Gilbert Arenas and defensive anchor Brendan Haywood followed by an in-season coaching change, it was a lost season for the Wizards, who finished 26 offensively, 29th defensively, and Eastern Conference-worst 19-63 where it counts. I've got a lot of faith in Flip Saunders as a regular-season coach, especially with all the veteran offensive weapons he's now got (the stable trio of Arenas-Caron Butler-Antawn Jamison bolstered by new additions Mike Miller and Randy Foye) and his zone-defense emphasis as a way to hide the team's defensive shortcomings, so look for the Wizards to be the league's most improved team this season.
Pivotal Player: That said, I don't have much faith in Gilbert Arenas ever being an elite player again. Arenas is only 27, but after three knee surgeries across two mostly lost seasons, the odds of him getting all the way back are slim. He's still young and such a good shooter that he can still be very good, but that blinding speed that kept defenders from playing up on this jumper may never be the same. And his durability has to be a big question mark. Without a superstar-level Arenas, I don't see how Washington overcomes its defensive limitations to join's East's top tier.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Longtime Griz fave Mike Miller had a lousy season in Minnesota last year, but is a good bet to bounce back as a role player in Washington under offensive coach Saunders. Miller will probably never be what he was in his best seasons with the Grizzlies, but his combination of size and pure shooting should age well. The other ex-Griz here is Javaris Crittenton, who had every opportunity to establish himself with Washington last season, but his shaky jumper and questionable feel for the game hampered him. Crittenton is still very young and has great size and athleticism for the backcourt, but with Arenas, Foye, Miller, Deshawn Stevenson, and Nick Young all in the backcourt mix, minutes will be hard to come by.

4. Miami Heat
Conference Rank: 6
Forum Date: Friday, February 19th

If Michael Beasley becomes a true second banana to D-Wade, then the Heat could be a sleeper.
  • If Michael Beasley becomes a true second banana to D-Wade, then the Heat could be a sleeper.
Notes: A resurgent season from one of the game's most dominant players (Dwyane Wade), a good young coach (Erik Spoelstra), and some defensive-oriented role players (Udonis Haslem, rookie find Mario Chalmers, in-season acquisition Jermaine O'Neal) was enough to get the Heat into the playoffs last season and might be again this season with the middle-of-the-pack in the East still lacking in sure shots. But it's still a holding pattern season in Miami as they look to either add a major piece alongside Wade (Carlos Boozer? Chris Bosh) next summer or rebuild completely if Wade skips town.
Pivotal Player: The potential difference maker here is clearly Michael Beasley, though his volatile off-season doesn't inspire confidence that he's going to make "the leap" this season. Beasley's offensive ability as a rookie was pretty much everything advertised, but his defense was so rough that it limited his minutes. With his three-point range but slightly disappointing rebound rate, Beasley looks more like a combo forward than a pure 4 — as much Carmelo Anthony and Jamal Mashburn as Carlos Boozer. With his defense, positional fit, and off-court problems, questions are abundant. But Beasley can be a dominant scorer if he puts it together. That happening this season is unlikely, but the prospect is enough to make the Heat a darkhorse.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Hey, Quentin Richardson plays for the Heat! Let's take a moment to remember Q-Rich's glorious Grizzlies tenure, a paperwork-only relationship that made him a middle man in what was ultimately a Darko Milicic for Zach Randolph exchange. Richardson's journey from the Knicks to Heat this summer included not only the Griz and the Clippers, but also the Timberwolves.

5. Charlotte Bobcats
Conference Rank: 10
Forum Date: Friday, February 26th

Larry Browns first season with the Bobcats lived up to expectations — for better or worse.
  • Larry Brown's first season with the Bobcats lived up to expectations — for better or worse.
Notes: Larry Brown's first season in Charlotte went to form: He got the team playing defense (7th), hitting the boards (12th), and winning some games (a franchise best 35 wins), but did so in part by turning over the roster and importing more tough-minded but lower-upside veterans (Raja Bell, Dasagna Diop, etc.), resulting in a team that is no longer young and doesn't seem to have the talent to be better than middle-of-the-pack in the Eastern Conference.
Pivotal Player: The Bobcats missed in picking point guard D.J. Augustin over Brook Lopez in last season's draft, but they didn't miss badly. And now, with so few scorers anywhere on this roster, there's going to be a lot of pressure on probable starter Augustin to not only put up significant points on his own but to help his limited teammates — finding Tyson Chandler for some alley-oops, helping Bell and Vladamir Radmanovic get open looks from outside, etc. Augustin's shooting translated to the big leagues better than expected last season. This year, his playmaking needs to follow suit.
Griz/Memphis Connection: Tiger Hero Antonio Anderson and former Griz camp fodder Dontell Jefferson are both on the Bobcats' preseason roster and have gotten some exhibition run. Both are longshots the make the final roster, but you never know.



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