Eastern Conference preview
Magic, Cavs, Celtics appear to be only elite teams in Eastern Conference
Internal growth could make both Bulls and Hawks formidable playoff foes
Lack of quality supporting players may doom hopes for Pistons, Heat
Picking the divisional winners in the Eastern Conference has never been easier. Barring a plague of injuries, locker-room mutinies or spectacular pratfalls that will prompt heads to roll, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando will finish on top. All three are worthy choices to be in the NBA Finals.
Checking my picks, I'm partial to defensive-oriented big men, bucking the pundits' consensus about the Magic (who generally aren't seen as a good bet to return to the Finals) and Bobcats (who aren't viewed by most as a playoff team). And teams keeping their powder dry for 2010, like the Knicks and the Heat, should be much worse.
1) Boston Celtics (third-best record in East)
First Take: If they stay healthy, they'll be tough to beat. But know that "healthy" still won't be the Big Three of two years ago; more like Kevin Garnett coming off knee surgery after 39,000 minutes of court burn with enough quickness to remain the tone-setter on defense. Age will likewise dock Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a quarter notch apiece, but when the secondary cast includes the ever-improving Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins and another grizzled stud in Rasheed Wallace, there's quality control on the roster. Who among Boston, Orlando and Cleveland rates a third seed? None of them.
Concerns: Age and recuperations, of course. ... No depth at point guard -- opponents should press full court whenever Rondo takes a breather. ... Rondo's clanging jumper.
Overrated: Marquis Daniels as a Swiss Army knife.
Underrated: Eddie House in the clutch. ... Pierce's ability to draw fouls.
X-Factors: The twin amps of KG and 'Sheed -- too much emotion? ... The Rondo aftermath: He's two whiskers away from averaging a triple-double in the playoffs at 23 and has to put up with criticism and trade talk in the offseason? Either the front office mismanaged the situation or there's more to the story than what's been told.
2) Toronto Raptors (7)
First Take: They've got the makings of a slick, potent, multifaceted offense, but the defense, especially in the frontcourt, looks to be horrible. Good thing the Canadian dollar is suddenly strong: $20 million over four years for mediocre backup point guard Jarrett Jack, and $50 million over five years for the graceful shooting and wretched defense of 7-footer Andrea Bargnani? Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon will get the ball where it needs to go, which is most often to Chris Bosh, an established star in a contract year at 25.
Concerns: Toughness in the paint. ... Is there enough room for both Turkoglu and Calderon to initiate the offense? ... How much success will it take to keep Bosh?
Overrated: Thus far, general manager Bryan Colangelo's United Nations approach to team-building.
Underrated: DeMar DeRozan, a great fit for Toronto's personnel and a legit contender for Rookie of the Year (especially with Blake Griffin's early-season absence).
X-Factors: Just how big can that bouquet grow in Turkoglu's late-blooming career? ... Backup forward Amir Johnson could go boom or bust.
3) Philadelphia 76ers (10)
First Take: If you're going to play without a decent point guard, coach Eddie Jordan was the right guy to hire. Jordan's Princeton offense is a movement scheme that favors wings, and the Sixers have a prolific pair in Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young. Power forward Elton Brand is coming off back-to-back injury-plagued seasons. The other half of the frontcourt tandem is center Samuel Dalembert, a solid defender overpaid at $25 million over the next two years, who complains about a lack of touches at the other end. Jordan would do well to cohere these pieces into a .500 record.
Concerns: How much vintage Brand is left after playing just 37 games in two years? ... Iguodala is turnover-prone but will handle the ball a lot because starting point guard Lou Williams is more of a combo and rookie Jrue Holliday isn't ready.
Overrated: Williams as an even serviceable answer at the point.
Underrated: Second-year player Marreese Speights is a 6-foot-10 beast who probably deserves to start. ... Jason Kapono as a sharpshooter off the bench.
X-Factors: The continued improvement of Young and Speights. ... How quickly can the players adapt to Jordan's system?
4) New Jersey Nets (13)
First Take: With Brook Lopez at center and Devin Harris at the point, they've got plus talent at the most important positions. Lopez will begin his string of 20-point, 10-rebound seasons this year. Harris got to the free-throw line more than any other point guard while finishing behind only Chris Paul and Tony Parker in scoring last season. But it's all downhill from there, with soon-to-be discouraged glue-guy Courtney Lee and rookie swingman Terrence Williams the only other potential bright spots.
Concerns: That Yi Jianlian, a 7-footer who shot 38.2 percent from the field, last season is a bust. ... That they won't finish ahead of the Knicks in the crab scrabble to crawl out of the Atlantic Division basement.
Overrated: Probably Lee, if only because nobody rates most of the players on this team very highly in the first place. He was a nice complement to a talented Orlando lineup who may struggle with a larger role.
Underrated: Center Josh Boone knows his limitations and maximizes his modest talent. Yes, damned with faint praise.
X-Factors: Forward Sean Williams is a big tease who has regressed on the promise of his rookie year but could still surprise. ... More broadly, the Nets have nothing to lose, and should act like it. Crazy lineups, a big trade -- roll the dice.
5) New York Knicks (15)
First Take: God bless long-suffering Knicks fans, whose sojourn in the hoops wilderness has compelled them to think the likes of forward David Lee and swingman Wilson Chandler are pillars instead of glue. Lee's league-high 65 double-doubles in 2008-09 were a tribute to his work ethic, but that dedication is also why he's already close to his ceiling and still a long ways from stardom. Chandler is a solid defender, but 43.2 percent from the field for a guy who can slash to the hoop is problematic. Forward Al Harrington will always look better on paper, Chris Duhon is the point guard by default and the rest of the guys are underachievers and/or the funny/sad answers to future trivia questions.
Concerns: There's only one fixation: Top free agents won't come to New York in 2010 after all.
Overrated: Nate Robinson, less of a combo guard than a 'tweener (or a "neither") who gets boosted because he's so much fun to watch.
Underrated: Coach Mike D'Antoni. Thirty-two wins for last year's Knicks was more impressive than many of his 50-plus-win teams in Phoenix.
X-Factors: An injury-free Danilo Gallinari.
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