Starting when the NBA preseason kicks off next week, I’ll be writing a daily recap of all the previous night’s action, called The Daily Fix (except on Thursdays because you can just watch TNT that night). In the preseason, I’ll focus mainly on team-specific rotational issues, injury updates and anything else newsworthy. When the regular season begins, I’ll be focusing on every issue possible, with the intention of providing all the information that a box score doesn’t give (although statistics will obviously still be used). Each night’s games will be broken into categories, like “Western Conference Showdown” or “Battles Between Eastern Conference Cellar Dwellers Who Are Doing Everything in Their Power to Lose,” for example. The Daily Fix will also serve as an avenue to all the team-specific writing and I’ll be following all the story lines that are covered in great detail by the team-specific scribes.
Until the preseason begins, I’ll be going division-by-division to expand on the predictions I made over the summer and to iron out my opinions on how each team and player will fare this season (I promise to call myself out for my incorrect predictions as often as I pat myself on the back for my correct predictions). First up, the Atlantic Division (from best to worst):
The Nets have a legitimate shot to win the Eastern Conference. What is legitimate? I’d say a 15 percent chance (only four teams have any chance at all, so 15 percent has to be deemed “legitimate,” right?). A lot of things have to go right for the Nets to actually come out of the East, but as it stands right now, you have to give Billy King a pat on the back for what he pulled off this summer. During last season, my best friend (The Kid if you catch him on a comment sometime) was all excited to see his new-and-improved Nets (although we couldn’t go to games anymore because they didn’t cost $15 a night like they did in Newark), but by the time the playoffs came, he knew what their fate was. After they lost in the first round to a Chicago Bulls team that beat them on grit, intangibles and defensive prowess, my friend was crying on a nightly basis (OK, he wasn’t crying, but he wasn’t happy about it, either). I told him that the Nets were tapped out and that they had reached their peak. I said in this salary-cap age when a team has no young prospects, a soft, talented big man who isn’t clutch and an aging third scorer (Joe Johnson), they’re destined to suffer the same fate that the 2007-12 Atlanta Hawks suffered. Then, Billy King brought in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to fill the Nets’ two biggest holes and followed the trade with a number of sound signings to strengthen the Nets’ rotation.
This is my take on the move: It was worth it for Billy King because he would have gotten canned after two more years of being the fourth seed anyway and it was worth it for the Nets because they already had invested so much in a talented trio that worked poorly with each other. The options for King were to blow the team up, which wasn’t an option at all with Mikhail Prokhorov just moving the team to Brooklyn a year earlier, or take a chance on a couple of aging ex-champs. Yes, he mortgaged the team’s future by trading first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 (and Boston can swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 if they want), but he found a taker for both Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries and their awful deals and gave up no one else who would have cracked the rotation this year (remember, 83-year-old Jerry Stackhouse was playing over MarShon Brooks last year).
Odds are that the Nets won’t be all that great during the regular season and that they’ll still finish fifth in the East. However, the intelligent schedule makers of the NBA realize that the old Nets will (hopefully) be hitting their collective stride around March, just in time to play the Miami Heat on March 12 on ESPN, the Houston Rockets on TNT April 1, the New York Knicks on ESPN April 2 (Gregg Popovich would sit Garnett and Pierce that night if he was the coach), Miami again April 8 on TNT, then finally the Knicks again April 15 on TNT. There’ll be a lot of smoke signals thrown out about the Nets until then, but like the Celtic teams that Pierce and Garnett anchored the last handful of years, this Nets team will be very aware of the need to pace themselves (at least Jason Kidd should; he did look pretty ragged by the end of last season).
New York Knicks
Remember what I said about the Nets changing their fate? Well, the Knicks are the Eastern Conference’s newest Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks look very similar to the team that lost in the second round to the Pacers last season, except swap Jason Kidd for Beno Udrih (I’m calling that an upgrade), Marcus Camby for Andrea Bargnani (to call a trade for Adrea Bargnani’s contract an upgrade seems criminal) and Chris Copeland, Steve Novak, James White and Ronnie Brewer for Metta World Peace and Tim Hardaway Jr. In a conference that already has the league’s best team and improved squads in Brooklyn, Chicago and Indiana, the Knicks are the only upper-echelon Eastern Conference team that has no chance of making it out of the East.
I expect the Knicks’ season to float by with their fair share of winning, but with the same problems that plagued the team last year. When the 3 isn’t falling, they’ll be in trouble. J.R. Smith will still be J.R. Smith (when you describe someone like that, it’s never a compliment). The best thing that could happen to the Knicks is that Hardaway turns out to be a decent wing prospect and that Raymond Felton gets moved, which would prompt Mike Woodson to move to a Hardaway-Shumpert backcourt (leading to a headline like “Hardaway and Shumpert: Backcourt of the Future?”). The Knicks don’t have a lot of variables (aside from the misused Shumpert and Tim’s son), and Carmelo Anthony still doesn’t make other people better, although he’s one of the best pure scorers in the game. Like always, Knick fans will get real loud when the Knicks beat Miami two of the first three meetings and then will disappear when the Knicks fall in the first round 4-5 matchup. I live in the area, so I’ve seen them in action; that’s how they operate.
I’ve already talked in depth about the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors here, but to reiterate, I don’t think either is a playoff team. I handicapped their playoff chances in the aforementioned piece like this: Toronto 10 percent and Boston 20 percent. Here’s the skinny on what would make these teams playoff worthy and keep them away from Tankville (located currently in Philly and Orlando, but coming to many more cities soon!).
- Rajon Rondo needs to come back and take over. This is his team now and he needs to lead them: for better or worse. He needs to shoot the ball better and I think he will be labeled a “volume shooter” by season’s end (a volume shooter is a guy who routinely goes 8-for-21).
- MarShon Brooks and Jeff Green are going to need to provide some serious offense. More importantly, Brooks and Green are going to need to come through in clutch situations. Brooks needed a change of scenery and I totally understand why he’s such a frustrating player for a coach (his best attribute is his ability to shoot moving laterally), but I still think he can be a 16-point-per-game guy. This is Green’s chance to show his stuff, too, and I think Green will look better than Rudy Gay this year. Yeah, I said it. Green’s game is meant to look good on a team that was just dismantled. Take that for what it is.
- Avery Bradley, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brandon Bass need to be OK with their roles (I didn’t put Jordan Crawford on the list because he’s never OK with anything). If they’re all down for fighting for the greater good, then Boston will make a playoff run. I highly doubt that happens and I have a feeling that Bradley will clash with Rondo. I wouldn’t be surprised if any (or all) of these four were moved during the season, as they could all serve a rotational purpose for a championship-level team (you can’t tell me Humphries wouldn’t see some minutes in Miami).
- Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger need to prove that they’re worthy rotational players. Of the four slanted sentences, I’d say that this one has the best chance of happening. Sullinger has injury concerns, but if he’s healthy, I think he’s at least a third big man. Olynyk can probably skate by in the East as a rookie with his skill set, although the trips out West will probably shake his confidence.
- I have little faith in Rudy Gay, but if he can become a poor man’s Carmelo Anthony then Toronto has a shot at being a playoff team. Gay isn’t going to turn into the kind of guy that makes his teammates better and I doubt his ability to become a leader. However, if Gay can put up 20 to 22 points per game and make some clutch shots for the Raptors, he might be a big piece to a potential playoff team that gets dismantled in the first round.
- The play of Kyle Lowry will be key for Toronto. To put it plainly: Are we going to see the Kyle Lowry from last year, who was banged up and ineffective, or the Kyle Lowry who was almost an All-Star for Houston the year before? There’s a good enough supporting cast around Lowry for him to be successful, so what will the second half of his career look like? Will he turn into a bulldog like Raymond Felton or will he be a backup for the rest of his career? I’m pulling for him to get his act (wanted to use a different word) together.
- Terrence Ross is going to be the best Raptor is a couple of years. I’m really high on Ross, who I think can be an All-Star in two or three years. He has scoring chops, he can flat-out fly and he can create his own shot. Right now, he’s behind Gay and DeMar DeRozan on the depth chart, but as long as he’s the first wing off the bench, that’ll be a perfect role for him in his second year.
- Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t proven anything yet. I know that the big man averaged 15.1 points, 7.3 boards and 1.9 blocks a night in his last 14 games and I’m not saying that’s a good sign, but until Toronto beat three playoff-bound teams (who were resting players) to end the season, the Raptors were just 3-8 during that stretch. So, let’s wait and watch it unfold.
I love what the 76ers did on draft night, and I outlined that here. In short, they weren’t going to win with Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young as three of their four or five best players. Now, instead of having some overrated big man that they probably would have selected at No. 11 last year if they still had Holiday, they have a point guard of the future in Michael Carter-Williams (who gets to spend an entire year with absolutely no pressure on him), a center of the future in Nerlens Noel (Tyson Chandler potential with a little offense, too), Evan Turner (who they could deal midseason or who could be the perfect backcourt mate to MC Dubs) and two first-round picks in the deep and talented 2014 draft.
That being said, they’re a rebuilding team in the Eastern Conference, so they’ll be downright pathetic this season. They’ll be hard to watch. They’ll play ugly. They’ll make a lot of mistakes. They’ll win 20 games. Maybe. This is the definition of a tank team, but since they’re so young, we can just call them a young team. They were designed to tank without looking like they’re tanking. I wouldn’t be surprised if in two years this turned into a great team, with MCW, Noel and the two first-round picks in 2014 serving as its backbone.
It’s going to be a long year in Philadelphia, but there’s hope for the future. I’d take hope for the future over sixth seed in the East anytime (translation: I’d rather be Philly than New York). I’m not sure what Philly fans would want, though (they even booed Santa).
Thanks for reading, folks. On Thursday, I’ll be going over the Central Division. Less than a month until it kicks off for real.