<h3>With the Nets and Joe Johnson now in Brooklyn, Sugar Ray Allen in Miami, Jason Kidd in Madison Square Garden and Jason Terry in Boston , The NBA’s Off Season of Change Provides an Exciting and Refreshing Opening to the 2012-2013 Campaign. But One Thing Remains The Same. The League Still Belongs to LeBron James.</h3>
As the East Coast bids farewell to the remnants of Hurricane Sandy while the Heat, Celtics, Lakers and Mavs tip the new season off, I’m excited about the sunshine and clear blue skies of what lies ahead in the NBA.
Here are some of my thoughts and opinions on each division, every franchise and the players and scenarios that will make this season one of the best ever. With all of that being said, I’m reminded of the wise words spouted by one of the street corner philosophers of my youth, that, “Opinions are like Hynie’s. Everybody’s got one, and most of ‘em stink.”
Nevertheless, I offer my random thoughts as we stand at the precipice of the NBA’s delectable 2012-2013 campaign. Today we’ll focus on the Eastern Conference. My thoughts on the Western Conference are soon to follow.
NEW YORK KNICKS – This is the year that long-suffering Knicks fans have been waiting for, when they finally make a strong push deep into the playoffs after winning their first division title since Tevin Campbell was crooning, “Can We Talk” back in 1994. But with Miami standing head and shoulders above the remainder of the league, New York will have to settle for duking it out with Indiana to settle who the conference’s second best team will be. The Knicks have added to their interior defensive post presence with the additions of Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas. Those guys should enhance the team’s overall defensive intensity, which will once again be spearheaded by the genius of Tyson Chandler. Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd will add some solid floor generalship in the backcourt to replace the departed Linsanity. Carmelo is the league’s most devastating scorer this side of Kobe and LeBron and the franchise’s most scintillating offensive weapon since the great Bernard King. Second year shooting guard ImanShumpert, in addition to having New York’s best hi-top fade since Big Daddy Kane back in 1988, is a diamond in the rough, and long range marksman extraordinaire Steve Novak, will both play a much bigger role than most people realize. Head Coach Mike Woodson’s voice resonated after taking over for the fired Mike D’Antoni last year, as the team finished 18-6 with him at the helm. His challenges this year will be to oversee the resurrection of Amar’e Stoudemire and devising a system that can routinely see him and Melo share the scoring burden. My only concern is that this roster, with its advanced age, makes the Golden Girls look like the cast of Hannah Montana.
BOSTON CELTICS – It all starts and ends with the magical play of inimitable Rajon Rondo, one of the most unique talents the point guard position has ever known. The addition of Jason Terry will ease the loss of Ray Allen, as Terry is a proven winner and champion who is more versatile than the departed Jesus Shuttlesworth. If healthy, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, with Rondo conducting the orchestra, can once again have the Celtics challenging for division supremacy. If Rondo gets hurt or the accumulated mileage on their legs catches up with Terry, Pierce or KG, no matter how good the young talents like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass play, or how great a coach and motivator Doc Rivers is, Boston could be battling the Raptors for last place. Like film director Woody Allen’s movies, they have the potential to swing from either excellent to terrible. My guess is that Doc will prescribe another winning formula, but too much is riding on Rondo and the excessive mileage on their established superstars. If Bradley can fully recover from his shoulder injuries, he’ll be among the premier perimeter defenders, whose on-ball pressure should allow Rondo to be even more destructive while jumping the passing lanes.
BROOKLYN NETS – The defeated aura of the New Jersey Nets is a thing of the past as the franchise inaugurates its first year in Brooklyn with an excitedly different identity. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who’s been one of the NBA’s top shooting guards for about six years now, could be the league’s top backcourt tandem and the highly underrated big man Brook Lopez is among the best in the game. Gerald Wallace will add more than the stat sheet suggests as an energizer bunny as he pressures opposing teams with his hustle on both ends of the court. I love the potential of MarShon Brooks and he could prove to be a fantastic backup to Johnson. Despite losing out in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, Brooklynites will have plenty to cheer about, as the Nets look to re-capture the excitement the franchise hasn’t seen since the days of Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman and DrazenPetrovic.
PHILADELPHIA 76’ers – With his rickety legs, the gray hairs taking his head hostage and sometimes sour countenance, Andrew Bynum has the potential to remind people of Fred G. Sanford if he doesn’t become the franchise center that Head Coach Doug Collins is counting on. As a Laker, Bynum had the luxury of struggling alongside Kobe, Pau and Lamar Odom while being given the benefit of the doubt. In Philadelphia, the fans will be vehemently screaming, “You big dummie!” if he doesn’t re-establish himself as one of the top three centers in the game. The 76’ers were one of the most exciting up-tempo and scrappy teams in the league last year, eventually losing a great seven-game series to Boston in the conference semi-finals. The losses of Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala will hurt, but look for point guard Jrue Holiday, who is quietly emerging as a talent to be reckoned with, to compliment Bynum while getting everyone else involved. There are some nice pieces for Collins to work with in the Young Fellas, aka Thaddeus and Nick, along with Jason Richardson, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner. If Bynum can get healthy and play at a consistent level as the league’s most skilled scorer in the post, Philly’s offensive philosophy will be entirely different from last year, and they will have something that no other team in the East has, an intimidating and dominating presence in the post. Expect Dorrell Wright and Nick Young to significantly impact the lane opening up wider for Bynum because of their ability to stretch defenses with their shooting. He may not be a household name like some other highly touted rookies, but I’m looking for Mo Harkless to become a solid contributor by the time this year’s playoffs roll around.
TORONTO RAPTORS – Toronto is a year or two from a legit playoff run and I love Head Coach Dwayne Casey’s tough defensive philosophy. If Lithuianian center Jonas Valanciunas is the real deal and if power forward and supreme scorer Andrea Bargnani can stay healthy, the Raptors will spend this season laying the foundation for the future. Speaking of the future, young swingman DeMarDeRozan has the potential to be a superstar. This team should be competitive with the point guard tandem of Jose Calderon and the newly acquired Kyle Lowry. If Terrence Ross, the rookie shooting guard out of Washington, can quickly adjust to the speed and strength of the pro game, the Raptors will give some good teams the occasional run for their money.
INDIANA PACERS – Indy and Boston were the only teams last year that seriously threatened Miami during the playoffs. This year, the Pacers bring back their entire nucleus and have strengthened their bench with the additions of Ian Mahinmi, DJ Augustin and Gerald Green. If Paul George needed inspiration and direction this offseason, all he had to do was review the tape of Dwayne Wade pummeling him on the pick-and-roll like Manny Pacquaio. If George can improve and be more proficient with a dependable pull up jumper, the other pieces are there for another excellent season. Danny Granger is a stud, Roy Hibbert has a chance to be an elite big man and David West and Tyler Hansbrough are as tough as they come. This team is deep, young and primed for a sustained run at the Heat.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS – Thanks to the brilliance of the precocious super (soon to be duper) star Kyrie Irving, who looked like he belonged on this summer’s Olympic team during Team USA workouts this summer in Vegas, I’ll be watching the Cavs every chance I get this year. They’ve got some intriguing young talents in Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller. That developing talent will not strike fear in anyone, especially in the half-court, but if they can get out on the break and complement Irving’s prowess on the fast break, they’ll at least be entertaining while they take their lumps.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS –For fans that miss seeing Allen Iverson, you don’t have to travel to China to catch a reasonable facsimile of his dynamic, diminutive playing style. The Bucks boast two little guys who are fearless in their pursuit of buckets, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Even if Milwaukee stinks, watching those two is worth the price of admission alone. But judging from Head Coach Scott Skiles’ body of work, the additions of defensive specialists Joel Przybilla and Samuel Dalembert, along with rookie shot blocking savant John Henson, will shore up an interior defense that was looser thanan old Republican’s turkey neck last year. Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden and Mike Dunleavy are solid and I’m intrigued by Luc Mbah a Moute’s ability to swing between the shooting guard and power forward positions. Expect the Bucks to snag a low playoff seed.
CHICAGO BULLS – If Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson can hold the fort until the brilliant and arresting beauty of Derrick Rose returns, the Bulls should be able to hit their stride in the playoffs, when Rose should be at full strength after coming back from the ACL injury that ruined a much anticipated Chicago/Miami playoff matchup last year. Even without D Rose, Chicago is still a very tough team, thanks to Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s focus on fielding a rugged defense, regardless of who’s on the floor. The common fan might be oblivious, but center Joakim Noah is the real deal. He plays D and rebounds with the heart of a MMA fighter with a cauliflower ear. If his offensive game continues to evolve and if Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer can regain their status as elite players, no one in the conference, with the exception of Miami will want to see the Bulls when the real season starts. But their Achilles weakness might be not having Kyle Korver on the perimeter, if Marco Belinelli proves to be a cheap, Canal Street knockoff.
DETROIT PISTONS – Last year, rookie point guard Brandon Knight showed flashes, but his assist-to-turnover ratio was uglier than Rick Ross’ stomach. He will undoubtedly improve and the potential is there for him to be a wonderful floor general. Greg Monroe emerged last year, and could take the next step towards becoming an elite player this year. Rookie big man Andre Drummond looked great in limited preseason minutes and Detroit looks to have a big man tandem to be reckoned with in the near future. If Rodney Stuckey can be more proficient as a scorer while distributing the ball better, if Corey Maggette and Charlie Villanueva can throw a pebble in the ocean and improve their abysmal field goal percentages from last year and if Jonas Jerebko can develop some semblance of a post-up game, if coach Lawrence Frank can get Will Bynum and Knight on the court together for stretches, their speed could provide an advantageous change of pace in transition, and if 6-foot-11 Austin Daye can begin realize his immense potential, the Pistons might finish above .500 for the first time in five years. That’s a lot of ifs. I also have a hunch that rookie Kyle Singler, after honing his game in Italy last year after graduating from Duke, will raise some eyebrows.
MIAMI HEAT – Here’s some sad news for all of the LeBron haters. The best team in basketball actually got better during the offseason. With Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen on the perimeter while LeBron and D Wade slice and dice toward the rim, the veteran sharpshooters will find themselves open longer than 7-11. The greatest strength of LeBron’s game, aside from the bloated stats and ability to play all five positions at an All-Star level, is his propensity to make his teammates better. With Wade, Mike Miller and Chris Bosh having a few months to heal from their assorted injuries, while Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole benefit from the experience that last season’s title run provided, The Heat’s supporting could be much stronger than they were last year. And of course, with LeBron being the best player on the planet and free of burden of having to justify his status as an all-time great with a championship, expect him to play with even more ferocity and determination, knowing that his time is now to chase after Magic, Wilt, Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Jordan as he continues to make his case for being the league’s greatest player ever.
ORLANDO MAGIC – Head Coach Jacque Vaughn has his hands full if he hopes to coax enough wins out of this squad to keep Orlando out of the lottery in its first season without Dwight Howard. Jameer Nelson, HedoTurkoglu, Al Harrington, J.J. Reddick and Aaron Afflalo have enough talent and experience to keep this team competitive. Glen Davis stepped up in the postseason like the Yankees’ Raul Ibanez, and if he can transfer that production of 19 points and nine rebounds to some regular season consistency, Orlando might indeed prove to have some magic up its sleeve, Howard or no Howard.
ATLANTA HAWKS – The Hawks will be looking to make its sixth straight playoff appearance and you have to admire new General Manager Danny Ferry’s prompt attention to strengthening the team for a push beyond the playoffs’ second round. I love Lou Williams’ ability to spontaneously combust on offense. His scoring, along with the contributions of veteran Anthony Morrow and John Jenkins, the talented rookie from Vanderbilt, should fill the void of Joe Johnson’s departure. Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and Al Horford are a formidable trio. With Devin Harris coming in off the bench, the Hawks will have a tough point guard tandem. This team could soar if Josh Smith plays like the franchise superstar he yearns to be. But if he insists on jacking up terrible shots, his terrific shot blocking and defense will not be enough to avoid another early playoff exit. The good news is that Ferry’s swift decision to move Johnson and Marvin Williams have freed up significant cash for a big free agent splash next summer.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS – With the drafting of Bradley Beal, the Wizards have one of the league’s best young backcourts. Unfortunately, the knee injury to John Wall, which could sideline him for up to two months, will stunt their development as a tandem this year. But the future looks bright in DC. The additions of Nene, Trevor Ariza and EmekaOkafor will be a marked improvement from the days of JaVale McGee and AndrayBlatche. Jordan Crawford can score with the best of them, and if he can improve his shot selection and shooting percentages, if Jan Vesely can prove to be the player that his tantalizing potential suggests he can be, and if Wall can return and take the next step in his development, Washington could be in contention for one of the East’s last playoff spots.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS – There’s no place to go but up for the franchise who finished last year with the league’s worst winning percentage ever. Ben Gordon, Brendan Haywood and Ramon Sessions will add some veteran savvy and for a team whose early success will be judged by effort rather than victories, while rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and his relentless work ethic will be very well received in the Queen City. Bismack Biyombo is still as raw as they come offensively, but his defensive presence is already top shelf. With Kemba Walker, Tyrus Thomas and Gerald Henderson, who should all be anxious to erase the profundity of last year’s terrible campaign, look for a marked improvement from this year’s Bobcats.