(15) TORONTO RAPTORS
Last season: 22-60 (5th Atlantic, 14th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Ferg says: Basketball in Canada has been pretty dismal the last few years. Three years and no playoff appearances, an abysmal campaign last year (second only to the Cavs in the East, third behind the Timberwolves in the League) and a fall from an okay team to basketball irrelevance. Last year’s team went a brutal 6-35 on the road, giving up nearly 106 points per game and only scoring about 99. Andrea Bargnani (now entering his fifth season) averaged a cool 21.5 PPG, with 5.1 boards a night as well. Bargnani is a center with impressive range on his jumper and great athleticism, but he needed help last year to even make the Raptors competitive. DerMar DeRozan averaged a little over 17 PPG last year and is a great slasher who can get to the basket. He’s been a nice little surprise for Toronto, and he can only improve. His distance shooting (less than 9 percent from three) left a lot to be desired last year. Leandro Barbosa is on the Raptors, I had no idea. Shows how far he’s fallen. The guy who was once the big X-factor for those Suns teams in ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08 is wasting away on a 22-win Raptors team. The rest of the squad from last year is a who’s who cadre of role players shoved into starting spots where they don’t belong: Linas Kleiza, Jose Calderon, James Johnson, Jerryd Bayless, etc. The Raps had trouble shooting from distance (31.6 percent as a team) and suffered from bad guard play and a lack of muscle inside. They won 22 games out of a possible 82, what more do you want me to say about last year?
The Raptors were very active in free agency, but the jury is still out on whether or not these moves will considerably improve the pride of Toronto. This year’s team returns the starting five of Calderon-DeRozan, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, Bargnani and the addition of Anthony Carter (PG), Rasual Butler (SG) and Aaron Gray (PF/C) should provide some depth to a thin Raptors team. Carter is a journeyman point that has been on a few teams in his time (the Raptors are team number six) and he has been the backup on some pretty good teams that went into the playoffs and made some moves (Denver Nuggets of 2008-2010), so it’s clear Carter has the experience that, quite frankly, the Raptors lack. I like the Gray pickup. He may not be the most skilled (career 3.6 points per game) at scoring, but he’s a different player from Bargnani and he’s still young and developing. Gray is a big presence and can be relied upon to spell Amir Johnson or Bargnani and grab rebounds. He’s physical, which the Raptors need. Along with Carter, Jerryd Bayless will be backing up Jose Calderon, and if his April was any indication as to what’s to come, Bayless may prove to be valuable to the Raptors down the road. Jerryd averaged 22.5 points last April, seeing his minutes per game double from 20 to almost 40. Bayless is a great young player with plenty of potential. With Barbosa coming off the bench/starting on back-to-backs on the road, I think the guard spots for Toronto has stabilized.
Worth watching: Let’s be honest right now, the Raptors will not be making the playoffs this year, or at least not without monumental collapses out in front of them. That being said, the Raptors are young in a lot of positions, so they should be fun to watch if they can start to gel. Something you need to look out for with this team is the development of Bayless as a scorer. As I’ve said, this team lacks a serious three-point threat outside of Bargnani, who can and will hit the three, but is much more effective for the team’s success if he’s around the rim. James Johnson and Amir Johnson (no relation) both need to continue to improve, particularly Johnson’s scoring ability. Expect Toronto to be frisky and streaky this season, but they’ll more often than not look like bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-15, SF-14, DK-14, CL-14, TF-13, JB-14
(14) CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
Last season: 34-48 (4th Southeast, 10th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Chris says: 2010-2011 was certainly a disappointing season for those following the Bobcats. After making it to the playoffs as a 7-seed the year before, Charlotte stumbled out of the gates to the tune of a 9-19 start. Out went head coach Larry Brown and in came interim Paul Silas. The team seemed to respond to Silas, which earned him the permanent coaching position. Still, Charlotte finished the season well out of the playoffs with a 34-48 record.
This year might be another step back for the Bobcats. Their two leading scores from last year (Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace) are no longer with the team; same for the top two rebounders (Wallace and Kwame Brown). That in itself isn’t bad, but the problem is that Charlotte really didn’t acquire anybody to replace that production. Corey Magette was a part of the deal that sent Captain Jack to Milwaukee, but Magette is 32 and coming off one of his worst seasons in nearly a decade.
Worth watching: If there’s one thing to be excited about with Charlotte, it’s the young backcourt. Point guard D.J. Augustin is poised for a breakout season. The fourth-year player from Texas averaged a career best 14.4 points and 6 assists last season for the Bobcats, and that was with Jackson and Wallace ahead of him in the pecking order. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Augustin comes close to being a 20-point, 8-assist guy this season.
The other big storyline heading into the season revolves around Charlotte’s first round draft pick Kemba Walker. The 9th overall selection is coming off an iconic run to the NCAA Championship with UConn. Walker is a fearless shooter and, in addition to being a prolific scorer, he was a clutch one too. Much like Augustin, Walker won’t have too much competition for shots, and could very well be the second or third scoring option when he’s on the floor. Walker should be in the mix for Rookie of the Year this season.
Unfortunately for Charlotte, the individual prospects for some of its players seem to be more exciting than the team’s prospects. The East is getting stronger and Charlotte is getting weaker. The Bobcats should have their hands full with staving off an up-and-coming Washington team for the fourth spot in the division.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-13, SF-13, DK-15, CL-12, TF-15, JB-15
(13) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Last season: 19-63 (5th Central, 15th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: The Cavs have young talent and a proven coach. This is not enough to hope for much winning in the next year or three, but if owner Dan Gilbert can avoid getting his team contracted for overuse of Comic Sans in bitchy e-mails, the Cavs have a sort-of plan. Byron Scott will get the opportunity to show if he can nurture a star point guard in Kyrie Irving, after having success with Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. Scott will also get the opportunity to show if he’s a flexible sort of guy, after his last season with the Hornets was marred by accusations of crappy-veteran bias. After using their amnesty on Baron Davis, Cleveland only boasts one overpaid, yet competent veteran in Antawn Jamison and a maybe-tradeable big in Anderson Varejao. Scott will have to play the young guys, but it remains to be seen if he’ll let them run.
He should encourage a fast pace, because this team is born to run. Cleveland’s two top-5 draft picks, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, are good in the open floor. And they’re like 19, so let them get the chucking out of their system now. With the competent if unimpressive BOOBIE Gibson and Ramon Sessions in the backcourt, ballhandling shouldn’t be awful. Jamison was at his best in the Golden State run and gun days, and the Cavs will be starting the NBA’s current pride of Israel, Omri Casspi, a wing with a European-flavored game. Byron Scott does not run (although he does appear to be a coach that gets offensive efficiency out of his teams). They might as well, though, because they’re gonna be real bad on defense.
Worth watching: Uhh, free throw rate? The Cavs are a pure upside watch, and Kyrie Irving, has plenty of it at the game’s current premier position. Second-year Michigan man Manny Harris, blessed with good size at the 2 and a decent touch beyond the arc, seems like the quintessential candidate for a 12-team, 15-year career: The journey begins here. If Scott lets them run, Cleveland should be a sneaky good watch against other offense-heavy young units. Wiz-Cavs should be fun games.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-14, SF-15, DK-13, CL-15, TF-11, JB-13
(12) DETROIT PISTONS
Last season: 30-52 (4th Central, 11th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: Sometime after the Pistons’ 2004 Larry Brown Team Basketball championship, Joe Dumars hit his head on the GM competency ceiling. We should remember that this is the man who drafted Darko over Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, but his nightlight never burned brighter than in the afterglow from that feel-good title. It was the reinvention of Team, over the Me-Mes of Kobe & Shaq; even Sheed got his act together enough to participate. Give Dumars credit for putting together a title-winning core with no bona fide top-10 superstar, something that hadn’t happened since the original Bad Boys. Give him credit for milking the last half season of high-post brilliance out of Chris Webber in ’06-’07. Give LeBron credit for breaking the Pistons apart with 25 straight points in Game 5 of the 2007 Conference Finals.
But shame on Mr. Dumars for trying to rebuild a team “on the fly” without any sort of centerpiece to the operation. When you have a championship core sans-superstar(s), building another core of the same caliber takes some tough decisions. It doesn’t mean spending $80-odd million of cap space on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva’s blinding dome. It doesn’t mean signing your marginal All-Star point guard to a big deal and then trading him for a 30-something Allen Iverson. What a rebuild, on the fly or not, certainly does not mean is hiring your third head coach in four seasons after two straight years in the lottery, and THEN re-upping for four years with Tayshaun Prince with young depth at his position. As of this writing, it was unclear if the very definition of solid-combo-guard-with questions, Rodney Stuckey, was going to get overpaid by Dumars, or if Stuckey was overvaluing his services to such an extent that he’d end up signing a measly qualifying offer with intentions on hitting unrestricted free agency next summer.
Fortunately for Palace denizens, a couple years of mediocrity has yielded some talent, and if Lawrence Frank is smart he’ll get the kids minutes as much as possible. As an added bonus, Detroit has not yet used its Get Out of a Crappy Contract Free card yet, and so they can still jettison the last $20 million or so of Gordon or Villanueva for next summer’s strong free agent class.
Worth watching: The Greg Monroe–Brandon Knight running combo is the Pistons’ future, with Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko in supporting roles on the wing. If it’s more of the young guys and less of the old in Detroit this year, they should contribute to the Not-Good-But-Fun rotation of 7 p.m. contests in the East’s lower levels.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-12, SF-12, DK-12, CL-13, TF-14, JB-12
(11) WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Last season: 23-59 (5th Southeast, 13th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Chris says: Despite finishing 14 games out of a playoff spot in the East, there was some reason for hope for Washington. The Wizards took John Wall with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he quickly became one of the top young point guards in the league. Wall averaged 16 points and 8 assists per night, as well as about 2 steals per game. His shooting (41 percent) left something to be desired, but the Wizards have their point guard of the future with Wall.
Washington has a good chance to improve on last year’s 23-59 record. Four of their projected starters (Wall, Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee) are all 26 or younger. Young led the team with 17.4 PPG last year. Blatche and McGee offer double-double potential on a nightly basis, plus McGee is one of the top shot-blockers in the game. Add to the mix explosive rookie Jan Vesely and at the very least the Wizards should be extremely fun to watch.
The Wizards haven’t added any major players via free agency, but did pick up a pair of bench players that could make a difference. Roger Mason Jr. is a career 38 percent three-point shooter and that’s an area where they Wizards sorely need help. The team was third-worst in the NBA, shooting 33.2 percent from three. Washington also picks up some help on the interior, acquiring Ronny Turiaf as part of the three-team trade that landed the Knicks Tyson Chandler.
Worth watching: Let’s be honest here, 2011-2012 is still going to be a tough season for the Wizards. This is the same team that went a league-worst 3-38 on the road last year. Best case scenario is they squeak into the playoffs as a below-.500 8-seed in the East before mercilessly getting swept by Miami. Realistically, the Wizards should be happy to get out of the cellar in the Southeast. They’ll have plenty of plays on the Sportscenter Top 10, and the three- to four-year prospects of this team is very intriguing, but a 30-35 win season and a fourth place finish in the division would be a big victory for Washington this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-11, SF-11 DK-11, CL-11, TF-10, JB-11
(10) NEW JERSEY NETS
Last season: 24-58 (4th Atlantic, 12th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Ferg says: When Russian playboy and gazillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets last year, there was wild speculation he’d go one of two ways: Run the team like a European soccer club and start buying people left and right, or run it like an arm of the Russian mafia and we’d start finding an increasing number of bodies washing up in the Hudson. Neither of those scenarios played out, as Prokhorov kept relatively quiet…until, you know, he announced his candidacy in Mother Russia. The Nets last year instead operated like the dysfunctional bunch they are: Improving from their abysmal 2009-10 campaign (12-70) to double their win total (24) and prove somewhat frisky, if otherwise, bad. They managed only five wins on the road, three wins in division and 13 in conference, so moral victories came at a premium. Getting Deron Williams in a ridiculous move from the Jazz (those damn Mormons strike again), turned out to be a blessing for the Nets, who can now try to pair Williams (a top-3 point guard in the league and much, much better than Devin Harris) with Brook Lopez and, hopefully, one or two more big players to turn the Nets back into a contender. Lopez’s star continues to rise, as the former Stanford standout (ee what I did there?) averaged almost 21 PPG and turned into a decent center who isn’t afraid to step out and shoot, but who can still take it strong to the hole. Williams averaged 20 points and 10 assists per game. Jordan Farmar’s 9.6 points and 5 assists per game were great off the bench, and with the playoff experience and solid play he provides, he proved to be a decent pickup for the Nets last year.
The Nets signed Jordan Williams (a young rookie forward out of Maryland) and also signed the ugliest human being ever created, center Shelden Williams (so they can balance out Maryland with a Dukie, I guess) as two solid pickups. The Landlord is on his seventh team in six years, so someone out there still thinks he can dictate play like he used to. He and J-Will will be relied upon to spell Lopez and also might be starting centers with Lopez at the four. The Nets got rid of Travis Outlaw via the new amnesty clause, so the roles of Stephen Graham, Anthony Morrow and Damion James just increased with this team, for now. Morrow’s listed as the 2-guard, but has the size to be a 3 if duty calls. The Nets have Sundiata Gaines on the bench as well, who you may remember as the dude who played the game of his life on a ten-day contract, so the depth at point guard is good for the Nets. I’d like to see them grab a 3-guard/3-4 hybrid player to really move into contender status. Until that moment, the soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets are improving, but are still a long way away from being legitimate contenders in the East. They might back their way into a playoff spot, but with the Knicks and Sixers out in front, not to mention the Celtics atop the division, the Nets will have a tough go in their own division, let alone the East.
Worth watching: The thing to watch for the Nets is whether or not they’ll make a move to grab a big name this year. There’s rumors that they’re trying to court Dwight Howard, but I’m really unsure as to whether or not he’s going to move this season. Deron Williams has opted out of his extension, partly because he wants a new contract. So, with the move to Brooklyn coming, the Nets have to pick up a piece that Deron will want to stick around for, and also for their fans to enjoy. Again, a good 3-4 hybrid forward would really push the Nets upwards in the East. Put someone like that on the floor, and suddenly the Nets have the option to play Lopez at the 5 (where he’s a nightmare matchup for most centers) or the 4 (where he’s still a tough matchup) with either J-Will or Shelden Williams at the 5. Another solid fit would be a scoring 2-guard who can shoot. Deron Williams can get to the rim when he needs to, but needs a player that he can rely on to hit jumpers when he penetrates. Look for crazy presidential-hopeful Prokhorov to make some moves this year to improve his team.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-9, SF-9, DK-10, CL-10, TF-12, JB-10
(9) MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Last season: 35-47 (3rd Central, 9th East)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Josh says: Two years ago, around this time of year, a friend of mine convinced me to go in on a “mini-season” ticket package for one Milwaukee Bucks basketball club. It remains one of the best sports-related decisions of my life. For 2009-10 was the year of “Fear The Deer,” a surprising Bucks squad that ended up finishing sixth in the East with a streaky rookie point guard rocking a flat top (it’s coming back–be aware) and an Australian center having a career year. Until Amar’e ran under him as he finished a fast break in April. From the upper deck, it was obviously a season-ending injury. Even without Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee took Atlanta to seven in the first round and showed admirable spunk as the Bradley Center crowd stayed hot, with Squad 6 leading the noise brigade.
Last year, Andrew Bogut didn’t have quite the same mojo, and Brandon Jennings suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. GM John Hammond inexplicably signed John Salmons, Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden to overpriced deals, and the Bucks finished out of the playoffs. How to recover from this downer?
First, it begins with “Fear The Deer,” which is an appropriate moniker for a Scott Skiles team. Deer, white-tailed or otherwise, are generally only fearsome when they are in your way. A Hoosier through and through, Skiles is the NBA’s all-time (single game) assists leader and a strong believer in defense. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gives him plenty of that, with no offense, at the wing. Stephen Jackson is still a solid defender with or without a firearm, and Bogut was a top-3 center in 2009-10 before The Fall. No kidding. If Bogut is at his ceiling, the Bucks will be in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Hammond ate a big bowl of Colon Blow this past draft night, expelling Maggette and Salmons and getting S-Jax for the price of taking on a bad contract/competent backup point in Beno Udrih and a few spots in a bad draft.
The Bucks could slip back into the morass of the East’s bottom feeders if only a few things go right, but they could also be a scary team every night, especially in a building that can rock even when half-empty.
Worth watching: Brandon Jennings has a loose game that features plenty of crossing-over and a beautiful floater. Here’s hoping he quits chucking threes (like last year) and gets to the driving and dishing that’s his bread-and-pickle. If Bogut and Jennings be there in full, 6’10” Turk Ersan Ilyasova will be the third offensive option on a playoff team. Since we’re all required to pick the “next Dirk,” I’m putting him up for nomination; he’s in his sixth year in the league, and he can score.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-10, SF-10, DK-9, CL-9, TF-8, JB-9
Tomorrow: A look at our projected playoff teams from the East.
Photo Credit: Stacy Bengs, Associated Press