Eastern Conference preview (cont.)
1) Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
First Take: The ring-or-bust pressure on this roster is enormous, and perhaps debilitating. LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal are among the top 25 players of all time, but Shaq is 37, with a lot of minutes and pounds under his belt and outsized pride that can both help and hurt this team. At crunch time, neither superstar is reliable at the free-throw line. But getting large wings like Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon will really help the defense. Expect now-backup center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 34, to flourish with more limited minutes. Who among Cleveland, Boston and Orlando rates a mere second seed? None of them.
Concerns: Pick-and-roll defense. ... The past-due warranty on Shaq's amazing career finally expires. ... Shaq clogs the paint where LeBron likes to roam. ... Mo Williams' disappearance in the conference finals affects his psyche. ... And, the big one: LeBron leaves town at the end of year.
Overrated: The Cavs' reputation for stifling defense. It's true that coach Mike Brown, a Gregg Popovich disciple, emphasizes that end of the court, but as Orlando proved in last year's playoffs, large wings and rapid ball movement give this team fits.
Underrated: The acquisition of Parker.
X-Factor: Delonte West. Last year's gritty playoff performer is dealing with off-the-court issues. But don't count him out.
2) Chicago Bulls (6)
First Take: Love the depth, developed with the highway robbery that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento. Salmons alone nearly compensates for the free-agent loss of Ben Gordon to Detroit. Reigning Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose is the real deal at the point, and the emergence of Joakim Noah and the addition of Miller provide a simpatico pair of pivots to answer most every contingency at the position. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich join Salmons to give the Bulls a trio of very good catch-and-shoot scorers who get fed by Rose after being sprung by picks from Noah or Miller. With their confidence and postseason experience bolstered by last year's stirring series against Boston, they could avoid meeting one of the East's Big Three in this year's first round if the defense stiffens and forward Ty Thomas grows up.
Concerns: Not enough offense in the low post. ... Not enough defensive intensity.
Overrated: Backup point guard Jannero Pargo: His career numbers are 39.5 percent from the field and 2.1 assists per game.
Underrated: Salmons is a big-time scorer with a small ego. ... Rookie forward Taj Gibson could work himself into the deep rotation. ... Miller is a savvy mucker and Noah isn't pretty but has improved his game at both ends.
X-Factors: Deng can stick the jumper, but regaining his previous mobility off the dribble and on defense would be a huge plus. ... How big is Rose's next step forward?
3) Detroit Pistons (9)
First Take: Welcome to the Score Boys, featuring firepower galore and about 15-20 fewer wins than the vintage Bad Boys of yore. Artillery from the perimeter is in abundance, via guards Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey, and forwards Charlie Villanueva and Tayshaun Prince. But only Prince is a shutdown defender, while free-agent signees Gordon and Villanueva are below average. Detroit is playing long odds that Kwame Brown has figured it out at center, and have the matador D of Chris Wilcox and the long-past-his-prime Ben Wallace to fill in if Brown duplicates his previous eight years in the league. This could get ugly.
Concerns: Veteran winners Hamilton and Prince rebel against a second subpar season in a row. ... Mismatched parts compel new coach John Kuester to go with less talent -- Ben Wallace, point guard Will Bynum -- out of need for a better blend.
Overrated: The faith that this small-ball approach can succeed against quality opponents.
Underrated: A couple of rookies -- athletic 6-11 swingman Austin Daye and rugged 6-10 defender Jonas Jerebko -- could see more time if the Pistons' season goes south early.
X-Factors: The ingenuity of the holdover veterans together with Kuester (who broadened Cleveland's offensive sets beyond LeBron last season) does indeed create a scoring juggernaut. Or, the combination of too many shooters and not enough touches capsizes morale.
4) Indiana Pacers (12)
First Take: Another run-and-gun outfit with questionable synergy. Their outside shooters are plentiful and accurate, be it power forward Troy Murphy (45 percent from behind the arc last season), All-Star small forward Danny Granger (40.4 percent) or shooting guards Brandon Rush (37.3 percent) and Mike Dunleavy (injured for most of last year but 39.4 percent for his career). The Pacers also have two staunch defenders in center Jeff Foster and swingman Dahntay Jones, a point guard in T.J. Ford who runs better than he dishes or defends, and a high-paced but jump-shooting system that doesn't help their most beguiling youngster, second-year center Roy Hibbert. Add it all up, and it's still difficult to figure out how it goes together.
Concerns: That the lanky Dunleavy, arguably the team's best passer, won't be back from his knee injury anytime soon. ... The helter-skelter pace will retard the 7-2 Hibbert's development even as Foster's niche skills continue to decline with age. ... The short leash coach Jim O'Brien has on Ford's minutes will erode the point guard's confidence.
Overrated: The unorthodox Murphy can rebound at both ends and nail the three-pointer, but his gaudy stats -- he's a fantasy-ball monster -- have never gotten him to the playoffs in eight years.
Underrated: Every year, Foster's relentless grinding in the paint garners him more minutes than anticipated.
X-Factors: Will Hibbert develop into a force in the middle? ... First-round pick Tyler Hansborough shoots from the hip and scores, bangs around the pros as successfully as he did in college.
5) Milwaukee Bucks (14)
First Take: The Bucks cleaned house after high-priced stars Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut were injured last season, trading Richard Jefferson to San Antonio and letting Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva walk as free agents. But then they stocked the cupboard with role players -- Hakeem Warrick, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova -- to go with Redd, Bogut and last year's second-round steal, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. And Brandon Jennings, a 20-year-old point guard, was their top draft pick. In other words, they're not rebuilding and not contending. It's the dreaded fruitless meander.
Concerns: That last year's top pick, forward Joe Alexander, will never pan out. ... Bogut's back ailments become chronic.
Overrated: Redd is a fine shooter but doesn't merit being one of the league's highest-salaried players ($17 million this season). ... Point guard Luke Ridnour (6.5 million) and center Dan Gadzuric ($6.7 million) are likewise overvalued.
Underrated: Soon to be overrated because so many are saying he's underrated, Mbah a Moute works hard, plays smart and pays attention.
X-Factors: The learning curve of Jennings, small and young but talented enough to already be walking some of his big talking during the offseason. ... Coach Scott Skiles, a feisty motivator of disciplined defense who's capable of overachieving with lackluster personnel.
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