Sneak peek at East contenders
Criticism of Heat's stars may provide Miami unifying defiance Pat Riley teams love
Celtics' continuity may not be enough to overcome decline of star trio vs. Heat
New coach, emphasis on transition game should keep Hawks among elite in East
Here is an early -- but not premature -- look at how the top of the Eastern Conference shapes up for next season now that most of the important trades and signings have been made. The following teams are capable of winning 50 games.
Miami Heat (47 wins last season). Last season team defenses were singularly focused on LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, and yet each averaged at least 26 points and 6.5 assists while leading his team to a top-five seed. So how will they be defended simultaneously next season? Defenses won't be able to load up on James' side of the floor without him snapping one of his fastball crosscourt passes to Wade. Both are capable perimeter shooters who can drive inside as they like for layups, fouls or assists. Each has the potential to be the league's best defender at his position, and forget about stopping them after the outlet is received in transition.
Now add power forward Chris Bosh, who is the best No. 3 player on any NBA team. He should have a lot of space in the paint, especially when paired up front with 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a fine passer who has turned into a reliable face-up shooter with three-point range. They have frontcourt toughness from Udonis Haslem and Juwan Howard, and perimeter shooting from Mike Miller and James Jones. All they have left to do is improve the backcourt around Mario Chalmers with a couple of additional shooters and/or defenders, one of whom can be picked up on a midseason buyout. The Heat are built to defend like a blitzing NFL team, score bunches of easy back-breaking points in the open floor and swing the ball in the halfcourt.
Hopes of chemistry issues are being short-circuited by the abuse James has been hearing this summer. The more James, Wade and Bosh are criticized for AAU-izing the NBA, the more they'll be focused on playing as a unit. Rivals hope that James and Wade won't be able to break their self-indulgent habit for pounding the ball; meanwhile, the anti-Miami climate is helping to create the us-against-the-world environment in which Pat Riley's teams have always thrived.
The Celtics' 2007 acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen led to questions of whether they could adapt and blend with Paul Pierce. Remember the surprising ball movement and defensive commitment that defined their 29-3 start? We're going to see the same reaction from the Heat's new trio. Their vilification is unifying them and inspiring them to think team-first in order to prove they knew what they were doing all along.
Boston Celtics (50 wins last season). They can match up with Miami, but the Celtics may be a year or two too old to beat them. Kevin Garnett promises to continue improving following 2009 knee surgery, but his plummeting numbers on the backboards remain a stunning revelation -- he averaged 5.6 rebounds in the recent Finals after producing 13.0 in the same venue against the same team two years earlier, so how at 34 will he fend off the livelier legs of Bosh, Haslem and James? Pierce, who will be 33, struggled offensively against James in the playoffs, and the 35-year-old Allen will be the underdog in his matchup against Wade.
The Celtics need their three veteran stars to hold their own against the Miami youngsters so that Rajon Rondo can make the difference as an aggressive yet low-turnover point guard who controls tempo and keeps the Heat out of transition. The second-half return of Kendrick Perkins from major knee surgery is a must in order to bring Jermaine O'Neal off the bench. Rookie guard Avery Bradley must recover from offseason ankle surgery to provide defense and shooting off the bench, and Nate Robinson will have to build on the disciplined style he showed occasionally during the playoffs.
Last spring the Celtics' continuity (based on three years together) enabled them to upset the Cavaliers and Magic, whose recently assembled players behaved as if they hadn't learned to trust in one another. Will the same dynamic give Boston an advantage over the Heat? It remains to be seen how well Boston is able to fill the complementary roles: As of late July the Heat had a better sense for their rotation than the Celtics, who remained under construction in search of shooting and defense to back up Pierce and Allen.
Orlando Magic (59 wins last season). They look as if they'll go into next season with the same team around center Dwight Howard. They'll hope that another year brings them closer together and enhances their platforms of team defense and ball movement that results in dunks for Howard or three-pointers for everyone else. But each of Miami's big three figures to win his individual matchup against this team.
Will Brandon Bass play a bigger role at power forward? If so, then Rashard Lewis will revert to the small-forward spot as Orlando becomes a more conventional team than the 2009 finalist that upset James' Cavs while playing through Hedo Turkoglu as an eccentric point guard.
Vince Carter showed during the playoffs that he isn't an elite scorer who can carry Orlando through the final two minutes. The Magic will need to apply their depth to attack relentlessly, and they'll also need an MVP season at both ends of the floor from Howard. It's hard to imagine them beating Miami unless Howard emerges as an unstoppable force around the basket.
Atlanta Hawks (53 wins last season). It's a big mistake to write off Atlanta based on its unprecedented postseason drubbing by the Magic. The Hawks' young trio of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams is still maturing around Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Teague will be given additional minutes at point guard to make them more explosive in transition. They're deep and athletic, and coach Larry Drew may provide new energy after serving as an assistant the last few years. Johnson's max contract was controversial, but the Hawks will be glad to have him back next season.
Milwaukee Bucks (46 wins last season). Point guard Brandon Jennings will have more passing options between newcomers Corey Maggette (who gives them a newfound presence at the free-throw line) and Drew Gooden (a versatile scorer and reliable rebounder) and a full year each from John Salmons and Andrew Bogut (health permitting). Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova figure to keep improving, and if coach Scott Skiles can wring production from Chris Douglas-Roberts and rookie power forward Larry Sanders, then this will be a deep and well-balanced team.
Chicago Bulls (41 wins last season). Carlos Boozer fills their long-awaited need for low-post scoring, and the Bulls now have a promising foundation around All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, small forward Luol Deng and center Joakim Noah, who should complement Boozer up front. But they lack deep shooting apart from Kyle Korver, who hasn't averaged 25 minutes per game in four years. Rookie coach Tom Thibodeau will need to install a strong defensive system because opponents are going to collapse inside against Boozer's post-ups and Rose's drives while daring the Bulls to make shots, which leaves the Bulls still looking to replace the explosive scoring of Ben Gordon. But they should be able to add a shooter or two over the course of the season.
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