It was an interesting but ultimately insignificant offseason for the NBA, as many of last season's premier teams will go deep into the playoffs again in 2010. A handful of the middle-of-the-pack teams made some helpful acquisitions, but will they be enough for a serious run at a championship?
At first glance it doesn't appear that way, but you'll have to read on to make that determination for yourself. To make these projections I ranked every major contributor at every position, and then factored in team defense, basketball IQ, and head coaches. What you'll read below are the results of my mathematical system.
1. Boston Celtics (68-14)
2. Toronto Raptors (44-38)
3. New Jersey Nets (38-44)
4. Philadelphia 76ers (34-48)
5. New York Knicks (30-52)
Notes: The Celtics should be a dominant force this season, as they welcome their emotional and physical leader -- Kevin Garnett -- back to the floor. Boston has added battle-tested veteran Rasheed Wallace as a security blanket for KG, making the Celtics a team with very few weaknesses...if any. They are still in the market for a backup point guard, but Eddie House and Paul Pierce can handle the ball during Rajon Rondo's limited time on the pine. I love this team defensively, and Doc Rivers has really grown on me as a head coach.
The Raptors added versatile swingman Hedo Turkoglu, and they should improve enough to cruise into a middle playoff spot. Though Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani will likely continue their offensive development, Toronto doesn't have the size or toughness to contend with the powerhouses of the Eastern Conference (Celtics, Cavs, Magic). They are a finesse team; dare I say "soft."
As long as Devin Harris stays healthy, the Nets should surprise people by contending for one of the final postseason positions in the East. Brook Lopez is one of the only true, young centers in the game, and Courtney Lee will be a complementary backcourt partner for Harris. Small forward Chris Douglas-Roberts was one of the NBA's leading preseason scorers (though that doesn't always mean much), and he should help the Nets in their fastbreak attack. They are no lock for the playoffs, but they should be right there with the Pistons, Pacers, and Bobcats.
The loss of Andre Miller hurts the 76ers, and the Knicks have a bunch of selfish, low IQ players. Honestly, anything can happen as far as the seventh and eighth seeds go, but my math shows that these two teams will be on the outside looking in.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22)
2. Chicago Bulls (42-40)
3. Indiana Pacers (36-46)
4. Detroit Pistons (35-47)
5. Milwaukee Bucks (23-59)
Notes: Sure Cavs' GM Danny Ferry was active this offseason, but I didn't particularly approve of his transactions. Shaq is still one of the elite, pure centers in the game, but there's very little competition in that category. Looking at the last two NBA champions, the Lakers and Celtics, neither of their centers (Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins) are one of the top three players on their team. All you need now is an athletic, skilled power forward (Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett), and the ability to blow top opponents out with explosiveness. The Cavs lack that explosiveness. They are still ultimately a halfcourt team, and they are forced to play too many close games in the playoffs because they don't have that pull-away talent on their roster. The top three teams of the '08-09 postseason -- the Lakers, Magic, and Nuggets -- could all light up their opponents by utilizing the fastbreak, athleticism, and pure talent. The Cavs didn't have that ability last year, and they don't have it again this time around. But they still have LeBron, and should win 60 games in the regular season.
I was a little surprised at the Bulls' stagnation this offseason, but their young, homegrown talent should be enough for another back-end playoff spot. Though I like that the Pistons are trying to change their offense structure with the acquisitions of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, they didn't stand out collectively in the rankings. They should be in a similar situation to that of the Pacers at the end of the year.
Along with the Kings and Timberwolves, the Milwaukee Bucks project as one of the NBA's worst for '09-10. Here's their expected starting lineup: Luke Ridnour, Michael Redd, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Hakim Warrick, and Andrew Bogut.
1. Orlando Magic (57-25)
2. Washington Wizards (54-28)
3. Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
4. Charlotte Bobcats (37-45)
5. Miami Heat (29-53)
Notes: I must admit -- I strayed from my system a little bit here. For my MLB and NFL predictions of the past year, I stuck with the rankings and subsequent math. It worked out pretty well, but I've decided to add overriding logic to the equation in this example. After completing the rankings, the Wizards came out on top of the Magic; I'm sorry, logic tells me that's not going to happen. Washington made the excellent trade for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, and improved at head coach with Flip Saunders, but there's no way they are jumping ahead of Superman and his new sidekick (Vince Carter). I expect the Wizards to play better team ball than they have in the past, but Saunders won't be able to completely control the three-headed monster of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison. All three are inherently selfish offensive players, and they always seem to be more concerned about their personal statistics than the win-loss record of their team. Those aren't my kind of players, so I'm dropping Washington to second in the division.
Like the Bulls in the Central Division, the Hawks were pretty stagnant this offseason. Again they'll be a mid-to-late playoff team that exits within the first two rounds of the postseason. The Bobcats and Heat were also pretty quiet, which gives me little reason to believe that they'll make drastic improvements. Specifically, the Heat have one of the worst benches in the league. All the pressure to score is on Dwyane Wade and Michael Beasley, and Erik Spoelstra -- c'mon, this guy is a real coach?
1. Portland Trail Blazers (61-21)
2. Denver Nuggets (55-27)
3. Utah Jazz (48-34)
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (31-51)
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-62)
Notes: The Blazers certainly have the deepest and most talented team in this division, but will Nate McMillan play the right guys? The Nicolas Batum experiment at SF is still going on, and it's unnecessary. McMillan has a very solid two-way forward at his disposal, and his name is Travis Outlaw. Rudy Fernandez and Martell Webster should provide the swingman depth, and Batum shouldn't even be in the picture. Also, did the Blazers really have to trade for Andre Miller if McMillan wasn't planning on starting him? Steve Blake is still his man at this point in time, and sophomore Jerryd Bayless is now buried on the depth chart. As a friend of mine said to me the other day, "The Blazers are a headache to think about" -- and he's right. Still, I expect a strong year from them because of athleticism, length, defense, and depth.
Terrible offseason for the Nuggets. J.R. Smith is suspended for the first seven games of the season, and Arron Afflalo is the best Denver has as a replacement? Woof. Someone was sleeping at the wheel over the summer. Their lack of depth scares me, particularly in the backcourt, and they still have injury-prone big men in Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin. With everyone healthy and free of suspension, this is still a potentially explosive team...but will they be intact?
Little has changed in Utah, and it's very likely that the Thunder and Timberwolves will follow the Jazz, bringing up the rear. As if the T'Wolves weren't bad enough to begin with, now they're dealing with injuries to two of their big guns: Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. It's going to be a long, long season in Minnesota.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (66-16)
2. Los Angeles Clippers (48-34)
3. Golden State Warriors (45-37)
4. Phoenix Suns (40-42)
5. Sacramento Kings (24-58)
Notes: The Ron Artest acquisition will obviously improve the Lakers' team defense, but it may not do much for them offensively. Artest will occupy the offensive role that was Trevor Ariza's, and the latter really settled in during the postseason. Ariza was providing the kick-out option for Kobe on his drives, and he was drilling threes with surprising regularity. While Artest had a solid year shooting the three in '08-09, I've never thought of him as a pure outside shooter. He shouldn't hurt the Lakers, but there's a possibility that he'll disappoint his fantasy owners. Ultimately what I'm saying is, the Artest move doesn't put the Lakers over the top. When it comes down to it, expect nothing less than a classic battle with the Celtics.
Ahh, a division with two surprise teams: the Clippers and Warriors. The Clips employed the addition-by-subtraction strategy when they dumped Zach Randolph, an immensely talented-but-cancerous player. Blake Griffin will provide a breath of fresh air for this laughingstock of a franchise, and there are other youthful players in Al Thornton and Eric Gordon. Baron Davis and Marcus Camby should provide the veteran leadership, though they haven't been entirely reliable in the past.
As for the Warriors, head coach Don Nelson has finally opened his eyes: you cannot play run-and-gun with a bunch of small guys and expect to do any long-term damage. He's going bigger and more traditional with Andris Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf up front, a decision that slides rangy Anthony Randolph down to small forward. This will make the Warriors better defensively, and they can still run the break because Biedrins, Turiaf, and Randolph are athletic big men. Two fantastic scorers, Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson, round out Nelson's starting lineup. This team is deep as well, with Stephen Curry, Corey Maggette, and Anthony Morrow gunning off the bench.
Steve Kerr continues to do a horrific job in Phoenix, and no one expects even a drop of success from the Kings.
1. San Antonio Spurs (63-19)
2. Dallas Mavericks (59-23)
3. New Orleans Hornets (41-41)
4. Memphis Grizzlies (33-49)
5. Houston Rockets (30-52)
Notes: Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess aren't the type of acquisitions that make you say, "Oh damn! The Spurs are awesome!" but they are helpful puzzle pieces for an organization that marginalized the past two seasons. The Spurs' slow, grinding, halfcourt style was demolished by the new athletic/explosive style of the premier teams. I don't think San Antonio will push the ball much more than they have in the past, but at least they have better options in their conservative offense. Jefferson provides the fourth scorer they've yearned for; the fourth scorer who eventually becomes No. 3 when Manu Ginobili gets hurt. As for McDyess, last season he showed me that he still has some good years left. He was one of the league's best in rebounds per minute.
I like what Dallas did this offseason, picking up Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, and Tim Thomas. Marion brings a new dimension to a team that was stuck in its ways (similarly to the Spurs), and he should really thrive while fastbreaking with Jason Kidd. Kidd should help "The Matrix" return to the form of his Phoenix Suns days, and Dallas' collective pace will subsequently quicken. Their issue right now is Josh Howard's health, and that's something to monitor as the season progresses. In the end, they'll need him at full strength.
Hornets are stuck like the Bulls, Hawks, and Jazz, and there's little to say about the Grizzlies and Rockets. The Grizz had an interesting offseason bringing in Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, but if that doesn't sound like an episode of The Jail Blazers of Memphis then I don't know what does.
Eastern playoff teams (in order): Celtics, Cavs, Magic, Wizards, Raptors, Hawks, Bulls, Nets
Western playoff teams: Lakers, Spurs, Blazers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Jazz, Clippers, Warriors
Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics over Magic (4-2)
Western Conference Finals: Lakers over Spurs (4-2)
NBA Finals: Celtics over Lakers (4-3)
And that's that. I welcome and encourage all comments and opinions below. Bring on the debate, please...
("JFro," aka John Frascella, is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land."
It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular
general manager Theo Epstein. Preview or purchase it online at Amazon.com, Barnes
and Noble or Borders. It's currently stocked in Barnes and Noble stores
throughout the U.S. John has also done some work for NBA.com. Check him out on Twitter as well.)