Eastern Conference preview (cont.)
1) Orlando Magic (1)
First Take: The lack of support for their repeat trip to the NBA Finals is baffling. A low-block superstar in his prime is the most precious commodity in the NBA, and Dwight Howard inevitably will take another step in that direction this year. Revered, departed playmaker Hedo Turkoglu averaged 0.2 assists more than newcomer Vince Carter last year (and Turkoglu was passing to Magic, Carter to Nets), while Carter enjoyed equally razor-thin advantages in steals, blocks, rebounds, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, and outscored Turkoglu 20.8 to 16.8. A healthy Jameer Nelson compensates for Turkoglu's advantage over Carter in crunch-time ball-handling, and Howard's prowess at the rim negates Turkoglu's minuscule edge in on-ball defense. At worst, it's a wash for Orlando. Forwards Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes are solid rotation upgrades, and free-agent signee Jason Williams won a ring as a starting point guard in Miami. Orlando doesn't have a player 33 or older among its top nine; Cleveland (Shaq, Ilgauskas, Parker) and Boston (Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Allen) have three apiece. All things being equal -- and they pretty much are -- the younger, deeper team gets a slight edge.
Concerns: Nelson can't duplicate last season's career-best first half. ... Brilliant but brutally honest maverick coach Stan Van Gundy punches the wrong buttons. ... Howard's free throws. ... Feast-or-famine three-point offense turns mostly famine.
Overrated: Backup center Marcin Gortat isn't quite as good as his charmed last six months would indicate.
Underrated: The breadth of Carter's game. ... The effect of another year of maturity for Howard.
X-Factors: How minutes at forward are divided among Rashard Lewis, Bass, Barnes, athletic defender Mickeal Pietrus and three-point shooter Ryan Anderson. ... Howard's ability to avoid foul trouble.
2) Atlanta Hawks (4)
First Take: There is a gaping chasm between the East's top three teams and the rest of the pack, but the Hawks' continuity and athleticism have gradually created a systematic rapport that's increasingly valuable in this era of frenzied roster churn. Defensively, center Al Horford and forwards Josh Smith and Marvin Williams compose an interchangeable front line, quick enough for both crisp interior rotations and to get out in transition. Once in the half court, their sets are traditional: Guards Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby launch from outside, and the front line penetrates or pulls up from mid-range (although Williams developed three-point capability last season). Nothing fancy, but good for fourth in the East.
Concerns: Johnson's potential free-agent departure next summer. ... No big, quality center (Horford is more of a power forward) and lack of a significant personnel upgrade elsewhere foreclose continued improvement.
Overrated: The effectiveness of Smith, an immature decision-maker, although zero three-point field-goal attempts in the preseason is cause for hope (he's 27 percent on a whopping 471 long-range attempts his first five seasons). ... Bibby, whose indifferent defense has only deteriorated with age.
Underrated: The slight but steady honing Williams has done to upgrade his game. ... Horford's diligence and lack of complaint toiling as an undersized center. ... Coach Mike Woodson gets no respect but has stayed an upward course for this once-belittled franchise.
X-Factors: Volume-shooting combo guard Jamal Crawford could enhance the offense or disrupt its balance and continuity. ... Johnson's looming free agency and Smith's antics will quickly become less tolerable if the Hawks stumble early or their typical improvement of recent years starts to plateau.
3) Washington Wizards (5)
First Take: Flip Saunders is the ideal coach to orchestrate a roster with a surfeit of scorers and mostly uncooperative defenders. His fat playbook can spread the touches after Gilbert Arenas has staked his initial primacy. Caron Butler is a splendid second option, Mike Miller's weird disinclination to shoot is a positive in this context, and a healthy Brendan Haywood should bolster the low-post defense in a contract year.
Concerns: With the Wizards, it's always injuries -- power forward Antawn Jamison is already lost for the first month with a dislocated shoulder. ... Will ever-promising big men Andray Blatche and/or JaVale McGee make significant progress? ... Can Randy Foye effectively spell Arenas at the point? ... Was going over the luxury tax to bolster last year's 19-win team a prudent decision?
Overrated: You can't blame a player for being injured, but Arenas has played 15 games in two years, he'll be 28 in January and he's owed $95 million over the next five years. Time to step up.
Underrated: Butler is strong as an ox and enhances rather than merely fills multiple roles as a swingman. ... Even with injuries, the 33-year-old Jamison shows no signs (thus far) of falling off his 20-point, eight-rebound level.
X-Factors: Youngsters McGee and shooting guard Nick Young could thrive in Saunders' half-court sets. ... Is the logjam at shooting guard -- Miller, DeShawn Stevenson, Young, Foye and even Mike James -- destined to cause friction? ... Do they have enough character to embrace team defense?
4) Charlotte Bobcats (8)
First Take: By trading for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Tyson Chandler in the past year, coach Larry Brown is trying to concoct his classic template of a quick, aggressive defensive team that brandishes discipline and feasts on turnovers. Charlotte was last in the NBA in scoring even before Brown opted for Chandler over the more offensively prolific Emeka Okafor. Without a winning season for two franchises since leaving the Pistons four years ago, the 69-year-old Brown may see the Charlotte gig as his chance at a last hurrah, and would like nothing better than to cap his career by bringing the NBA playoffs back to the Tar Heel State. Despite injuries, he has a legitimate shot this year in a flawed, not terribly deep conference.
Concerns: Bell, perhaps Brown's most kindred spirit on the roster, is mulling over whether to have surgery on his wrist or play through a torn ligament. Then there is Chandler's ankle and toe woes, which were severe enough to scare away a Thunder franchise that was otherwise a perfect match for his skill set (Oklahoma City rescinded a trade for him last season). Throw in the fact that Bobcats MVP Gerald Wallace plays a superaggressive style, and the specter of injuries looms large in Charlotte.
Overrated: D.J Augustin is a scoring point guard on a team that desperately needs points, but his ability to defend and distribute is less apparent, and will test the demanding Brown.
Underrated: The synergy of the front-line starters. Chandler enables the jackrabbit Wallace and the crafty Diaw to gamble, and Diaw's dishing and Wallace's kamikaze drives will generate easy buckets for the big man.
X-Factors: Health, especially Chandler's. He's the key to the season. ... Rookie Gerald Henderson, who will likely crack the rotation while Bell mends. ... Can Brown be steady and patient?
5) Miami Heat (11)
First Take: The NBA's most blatant one-man team needs almost heroic improvement from callow forward Michael Beasley, worn-down center Jermaine O'Neal or second-year point guard Mario Chalmers to forestall further erosion on the body and spirit of Dwyane Wade before the Heat go superstar shopping for free agents next year. Like the Knicks, Miami's front office would prefer to play possum this season and then let the bidding begin in earnest. If that attitude trickles down to the players, a slow start could close up shop, resulting in a season of seasoning for Beasley, Chalmers, guard Daequan Cook, center Joel Anthony and other youngsters. The alternative is grinding down Wade's sinew and psyche for five months on behalf of another first-round exit.
Concerns: That Beasley lacks the temperament to fully tap his talent. ... An injury to Wade, or a siren call in his direction from another franchise as he approaches free agency.
Overrated: Quentin Richardson is a career bricklayer (39.8 percent from the field, 71.2 percent from the foul line) who has allowed his weight to balloon in the past and is average at best on defense. ... Jermaine O'Neal's lift and defensive coverage have lessened -- all for the low, low price of $23 million this season.
Underrated: Has anyone in the past decade put up a better non-MVP year than Wade's 2008-09 season?
X-Factors: Wade's mind-set. ... Chalmers' minutes after the recent signing of Carlos Arroyo. ... The tread left on grinder Udonis Haslem.
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