There for the taking
Add Boston to the list of contenders in wide-open East
Posted: Wednesday August 1, 2007 12:07PM; Updated: Wednesday August 1, 2007 12:23PM
With the arrival of Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster trade, Boston is back on the NBA map. More important, the Celtics suddenly look like prime contenders in the Eastern Conference. Depending on how quickly Boston can mesh the All-Star talents of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- and restock its depleted bench -- it should be right at the top in a so-so East field that lacks a clear front-runner.
Things could change in the coming weeks, but the East right now looks as wide open as it has in recent memory. Boston's acquisition of KG makes it at least eight teams (Cavs, Pistons, Bulls, Celtics, Heat, Nets, Wizards and Raptors) that have a roughly equal shot to reach the Finals. More so than ever, it will probably come down to injuries.
Here's one man's view of the East race, as of right now:
1. CAVS: Let's give the defending champs their due and list them as the early favorites. But their grip is tenuous, at best. LeBron James & Co. have made no significant additions to their roster this summer. Even if they re-sign restricted free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, they could easily be leapfrogged by one of the many contenders hot on their heels.
2. PISTONS: Yes, they have wilted in the last two postseasons, but with four All-Star-caliber players in Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace, they have to be ranked near the top. They also have added first-round picks Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo and re-signed 20-year-old forward Amir Johnson, a 2005 second-round selection who could join the rotation next season. Still they seem to be dealing with complacency among some stars, as well as perhaps some lingering tension with coach Flip Saunders.
3. CELTICS: It's tempting to get caught up in the hype and predict another banner in Beantown. Garnett, Pierce and Allen are all still in their prime and hungry to win a title. If they stay healthy, they should be right there. But it usually takes at least a season for teams to develop chemistry, especially on the defensive end. Plus, the Celtics are still unproven at the all-important positions of point guard (Rajon Rondo) and center (Kendrick Perkins).
4. BULLS: Don't count these guys out. While other top East teams have more star power, coach Scott Skiles' crew gets it done with hustle and teamwork. They still need a low-post scorer (Joe Smith won't solve that problem), but Chicago defends and plays with uncommon precision on offense. If Luol Deng continues his emergence as an All-Star talent, and Tyrus Thomas takes another step forward, the Bulls could surprise.
5. RAPTORS: Like the Bulls, they're easy to overlook because of the relative lack of big names. But they return all the key pieces from a team that won 47 games (fourth best in the East) and came on strong down the stretch. Unlike Chicago, they have an All-Star big man in Chris Bosh. Toronto still needs to improve its defense, but it might be able to take a step forward in that area with another season playing together.
6. HEAT: Was last year's dismal, injury-ravaged campaign a fluke or a sign they're just too old? For now, we'll say it was an aberration and that a healthy Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal are good enough to keep the Heat in contention. There is also a chance they could make a trade for Ron Artest or some other veteran. But Jason Williams is going to have to enjoy a bounce-back season (Smush Parker was signed to provide competition at point guard), and the loss of sharpshooter Jason Kapono could hurt more than they think.
7. WIZARDS: Before Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler went down with season-ending injuries, they were right at the top of last season's East standings. With both players expected back at full strength, joining Antawn Jamison, Washington is one of the few teams that can match Boston's three-pronged attack. But the Wizards are still paper-thin in the middle, and it remains to be seen whether they can score enough to overcome their lack of D.