The Nowhere Plans Big Ass NBA Preview – Part 4

Part 4 of the Big Ass NBA Preview continues with Eastern Conference squads we project to make the posteason.
Part 3: East non-playoff teams
Part 2: West playoff teams
Part 1: West non-playoff teams

Last season: 41-41 (3rd Atlantic, 7th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Miami in first round 4-1
Ferg says: The Sixers got into the playoffs last year, actually got people excited for basketball here in eastern Pennsylvania, then pulled off the unthinkable and won a game from the Heat in their playoff series. Mazel Tov. How they got there was their ability to play defense (97.5 points against, 12th in the League) and grind teams to a halt. Elton Brand led the team with 15 PPG and 8.3 boards per game, finally showing his worth for his ridiculous contract and staying healthy the entire season. Igoudala’s 14 PPG still left a lot to be desired, but he continued to be a threat if you left him alone on offense and a strong defensive player (1.5 steals per game). Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams were interchangeable at the point and Spencer Hawes tried to hold down that center spot. All nice players, all serviceable in what the Sixers needed them to do, but no explosiveness from this team, and that’s what really helped make the Sixers’ exit a quick one. Philadelphia does not “wow” you or make you sit down and watch their games with interest… they’re boring. They don’t have a lot of firepower on the offensive end, they were overwhelmed by teams with dominant scoring guards (Celtics, Heat, Bulls, etc.) and they struggled on the road (15-26).

The Sixers must have decided that they were cool with last year’s team, because absolutely nothing has changed. Only guy that left? Jason Kapono. New guys? Rookies Nikola Vucevic and local boy Lavoy Allen. So, the Sixers shored up their front court with the rookie additions of those two, but we’ll see what impact they can have. Allen was a great player for Temple, a strong offensive player down low who could also crash the boards. Vucevic is the first-round draft pick from Switzerland. Vucevic is the typical European center: Quick feet, finesse inside, good jump shot, etc. Where he lacks is “rebounding and defense” which, as I’m sure you’re aware, are relatively important to the development of a young frontcourt player. Spencer Hawes is still the starting center (but that can and will change any second) and Marreese Speights can back-up both Hawes and Brand. Iggy is obviously the starter at the 3 spot, with Thad Young (underrated bench player and one of the keys to the Sixers’ success) and Andres Nocioni as his backups. Evan Turner is the starting 2-guard for right now ahead of Jodie Meeks, but don’t be surprised to see him split time with Jrue Holiday or Lou Williams, depending on who the Sixers want to throw out at point guard and mix around with. The guards will be important for the Sixers moving forward this year.

Worth watching: For better or worse, Philly has the same team this year that they had last year. So, they didn’t get worse (you’d think) but everyone around them may have gotten better. Look at the playoff teams from last year: Chicago-Miami-Boston-Atlanta-Orlando-New York-Philadelphia-Indiana. Can you really tell me you like the Sixers over any of those teams this year, right off the bat? The Pacers added George Hill and David West; the Knicks added Mike Bibby and Tyson Chandler; hell, even the Bucks snagged Beno Udrih, Steven Jackson and Shaun Livingston. They all (you’d think) improved their positioning, while the Sixers just added two guys and kept the same team. What you need to watch for is whether Allen or Vucevic have any impact on Doug Collins’ team this year. If they can come off the bench strong, maybe supplant Spencer Hawes as the starting centers, this team can get better. The Sixers are in desperate need of someone (paging Andre Igoudala) to step up and be a superstar. Your top scorer averaging 15 points per game will not win you anything, regardless of how balanced you are. The Sixers have no pizzazz, no spice, no flavor. They’re as white and bland as mayonnaise right now. I mean, if you’re cool with the last playoff spot, that’s great, but the Sixers want more than that…right?
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-8, SF-8, DK-7, CL-8, TF-9, JB-8

Last Season: 44-38 (3rd Southeast, 5th East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Orlando in first round 4-2, lost to Chicago in second round 4-2
Chris says: The Hawks were one of the surprises of last season’s playoffs. Most people expected them to get steamrolled by Orlando in the first round. Not only did Atlanta hang around, they won the series in six. After that, people said they stood no chance against the Bulls, but were even with them through four games before losing in six.

There aren’t many changes between last year’s Hawks team and this year’s squad, but one key departure could really hurt the Hawks. Jamal Crawford left Atlanta to sign a two-year deal with Portland. It’s not often you’d say this about one of the most prolific chuckers in the game, but the Hawks are going to miss him. He provided instant offense off the bench, and was essentially the sixth starter for Atlanta. Outside of Joe Johnson, he was really the only guy on the team capable of taking over the game offensively.

Looking to replace that production, Atlanta went out and signed Tracy McGrady. T-Mac is coming off a season where he played 72 games for Detroit.  It may not seem like much, but it’s the most since his 2004-05 campaign with Houston. As a former McGrady fan, I hope he can stay healthy, but even if he can, he’s over the hill and won’t have the same game-changing ability that Crawford had.

The rest of Atlanta’s improvements will have to come from within, but where exactly does that come from? Joe Johnson has peaked as a player. Maybe he can improve on his awful 30 percent three-point shooting from last year, but even if he does, a drastic improvement isn’t likely. Josh Smith is an exciting player, but like Johnson, it’s not like he’s going to turn into a superstar this season.

Worth Watching: The guys to watch are Al Horford and Jeff Teague. Horford scored a career best 15.3 PPG last season to go along with 9 rebounds. Nothing too exciting, but to his credit, Horford has improved every season and is still at the point in his career where he can get better. Teague will get some serious playing time at the point, which is something a lot of Atlanta fans are excited to see. Teague held his own against league MVP Derrick Rose in the Eastern Semis last year, highlighted by a 21-point, 7-assist, no-turnover performance in Game 5. If he can perform at a high level for the entire season, Atlanta could turn into another surprise in the playoffs.

Interestingly enough though, Atlanta’s fate is probably tied to that of Dwight Howard. If Orlando deals Howard before the season, then the Hawks have a good chance to finish second in the division. If the Magic decide to roll the dice and keep him in hopes they can put together a run this year, then Atlanta is bound for third. Either way, they’ll be a playoff team with enough talent to at least make some of the top teams in the conference pay attention.
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-6, SF-7, DK-6, CL-6, TF-7, JB-7

Last Season: 56-26 (1st Atlantic, 3rd East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat New York in first round 4-0, lost to Miami in second round 4-1
Ferg says: The Celtics, built on experience, tenacity and an ability to play with unbelievable consistency in the playoffs, finally slowed down and bowed out to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat last year. Throughout the regular season, Boston had uncharacteristic struggles on the road (Just 23-18) and suffered from inconsistent play the whole year. One night, you’d see Paul Pierce (19 PPG) and Ray Allen (44.4 percent from three) step it up to another level, and others you’d see the guys in green struggling to find their identity. The Shaquille O’Neal experiment failed miserably, and the Celtics inexplicably traded away one of their key cogs (Center/Forward/Big Man Kendrick Perkins) along with Nate Robinson to get back Jeff Green (3-guard with slash-ability), who’s a great player, but would not help the Celtics down low. Rajon Rondo averaged a STUPID 10.6 points and 11.2 assists per game, along with 2.25 steals per game to prove his worth on both sides of the ball. Rondo’s breakout season helped keep the shaky Celtics afloat, along with their obvious star power in Pierce, Allen and Garnett.

This year, the Celtics got an upgrade (in my humble opinion) with the swap of Glen Davis and Brandon Bass. “Big Baby” had run his course and had started to fade. Bass, who doesn’t necessarily have the finesse or athleticism of Davis, can still move without the ball, create space for himself and also provide a bit more of a reliable backup for when Garnett gets gassed. JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore add some much needed depth at the forward and guard positions, respectively. The Big 3 are another year older, and I would believe this might be their last run at a championship. Garnett’s legs don’t have much left, Allen is one bad ankle sprain from hobbling up and down, and I swear to God Paul Pierce looks drunk every time he dribbles/shoots/does a basketball-related move. That being said, when those three Hall of Famers are on (and more often than not, they’re on), you can never count the Celtics out, especially if Rondo has himself another ridiculous year dropping dimes. Celtics should be the third or fourth best team in the East once again, and a dark horse to get to the Finals.

Worth Watching: There’s a lot of things worth watching with this team, namely these big three questions: 1) Can Jermaine O’Neal stay healthy? 2) Can the rookies (Johnson and Moore) have an immediate impact? 3) How will this 66-game condensed season affect the Celtics? After the unfortunate loss of Jeff Green for the season (his unknown ailment required heart surgery; here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for the young player), health is going to be tantamount for the Celtics this year, and that third question becomes the most important, as a result. There’s a few instances with Boston playing three games in four days, six games in eight days, etc., and even a stretch in April where the Celts play five games in six days…that’s not good for the old legs that just got an extended break. What Boston needs is more depth, particularly at the center spot (O’Neal and Chris Wilcox are the only ones on the depth chart at the moment). Johnson may be able to fill that role, but relying on a rookie to be that sixth or seventh man off the bench at the center position (or maybe even start depending on what happens with O’Neal) is a tall order. With Green gone for the year, the Celtics need to find a good 2-/3-guard to help on the bench/score, because I’m not sure Sasha Pavlovic, Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling will do anything for this team as the season progresses.
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-7, SF-5, DK-5, CL-7, TF-4, JB-6

Last season: 37-45 (2nd Central, 8th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Chicago in first round 4-1
Josh says: It’s been a hard, long slog, but the Indiana Pacers are relevant again. Whether this team is of championship caliber is unimportant; the gates at Conseco Fieldhouse are rusting. The team Larry Bird has constructed will get bodies in the building and make life hell on its opposition. Hustle basketball without off-court incident is the sort of thing that Hoosiers love, and that’s what this deep, young team is set up to provide.

After Bird cleaned house by sending Metta World Peace nee Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors for Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. in 2008, the Pacers became known for their whiteness and little else. Drafting Tyler Hansbrough in 2009 before addressing the team’s pressing need for a point guard only added to the perception that the Hick from the Lick was sacrificing talent for “character.” Indiana had one championship-quality starter, in Danny Granger, and a whole bunch of bad contracts.

Now, the Pacers are shopping for luxury items–a shot creating 2-guard, a decent sixth big. Bad contracts were left to expire (Dunleavy) or turned into assets and picks (Murphy for Darren Collison, Jermaine O’Neal for Roy Hibbert). This offseason, Bird used his cap space to trade a middling pick in a bad draft for George Hill, a hometown boy and a rotation player on a good team, and acquired All-Star power forward David West on a relatively risk-free two-year deal. Last year’s first rounder, Paul George, is a 6-foot-10 talent who did a decent job on Derrick Rose in last year’s playoffs and has T-Mac upside. Hansbrough proved he could score and rebound (his own misses) last year, and will be that rarest of species, a scoring reserve big man. Jeff Foster returns to rebound at an absurd rate and get under opposing fans’ skin. Hibbert could take a leap into top-5 center territory, but even if the youth development goes nowhere, the Pacers will be in the playoffs under Frank Vogel.

Worth watching: Paul George is everywhere on defense, and if his potential is as advertised the Pacers could be looking at that elusive small-market, homegrown superstar. Darren Collison first showed his adeptness for the pick-and-roll/pop with West in New Orleans; reuniting them could provide a late game scoring option they lacked in the close playoff losses to the Bulls last year, while taking pressure off Granger. Most importantly, this team will hustle, refuting that ever-present criticism of NBA action–that no one tries.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-5, SF-6, DK-8, CL-5, TF-6, JB-5

Last season: 52-30 (2nd Southeast, 4th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Atlanta in first round 4-2
Chris says: Well, I could probably write a 25-page article on this team, but I’ll do my best to keep it as brief as possible. Orlando had a disappointing exit from the playoffs last season, getting upset by Atlanta in six games. Dwight Howard was phenomenal, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit a jump shot to save their lives. The series ended fittingly with J.J. Redick missing a wide open three in the closing seconds of the deciding game.

Unless you live under a rock (in which case, how are you reading this article on the internet?) you know this season is all about Dwight Howard. Howard could have been MVP last season, if everyone hadn’t decided in December that they were giving it to Derrick Rose. Howard is an elite rebounder and shot blocker, and last season he finally became a force on the offensive end. He averaged a career best 22.9 points, but it wasn’t how much he scored, but how he scored. Howard’s post moves were noticeably improved, making him an even tougher matchup for a league that’s lacking quality big men.

The problem with Orlando isn’t Howard, but his supporting cast. It’s the reason why Howard wants to get out of town. But the thing is, the rest of the team isn’t that bad. Inconsistent? Absolutely. Jameer Nelson is an accurate shooter and an underrated penetrator. He’s not a traditional point guard, but it’s not a traditional system, so Nelson is a decent fit. J.J. Redick has worked hard to dispel the myth that he was only a college star, as he scored a career best 10.1 points coming off the bench last season. Ryan Anderson might be the most exciting player on the team after Howard. The 7-footer is a lethal shooter and a better rebounder than you’d expect considering he’s a perimeter player on offense.

Not a lot of moves for Orlando this off-season. They re-signed Jason Richardson to a four-year deal. They waived Gilbert Arenas using the amnesty clause to get his contract off the books. They traded Brandon Bass for Big Baby Davis. This move is pretty much a wash, except for the fact that Howard and Davis are close friends, and Baby was on Howard’s wish list of players for Smith to go out and get.

Worth watching: This season could go one of two ways. If Howard stays this season and they run their offense they way it should be run, Orlando could still be a threat to win it all this season. Howard has grown to the point where it’s almost impossible for someone to shut him down for an entire game. A lot was made of how well Atlanta played defensively in that playoff series, but the reality is Orlando missed a ton of wide open shots. Shots they wanted to have. When they run the offense through Howard and create space for their shooters, they are almost impossible to beat. I honestly believe that if the Magic brings their A-game, they can beat any team in the NBA in a seven-game series.

While the boom potential is there, so is the bust potential. Howard could get traded mid-season. If he does, it’s lights out for the Magic. The system is built around Howard on offense and defense. The one-in, four-out offense doesn’t work with any other center in the league. Brook Lopez or Andrew Bynum wouldn’t demand the same defensive attention that Howard does. Defensively, it’s unbelievable what Howard does. Look at last year’s roster. Is there anyone other than Howard you would say is even above-average defensively? Absolutely not. Yet they are consistently one of the top defensive teams in the league solely because of Howard’s presence in the middle. So it will be interesting to watch to say the least. NBA champs, lottery team and everything in between are all possible for the Magic this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-4, SF-4, DK-3, CL-4, TF-5, JB-4

Last season: 42-40 (2nd Atlantic, 6th East)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Boston in first round 4-0
Ferg says: The Knicks made a big splash last year when they sold their house to Denver to grab Carmelo Anthony to try to pair him with Amaré Stoudemire. The hope was that those two, alongside “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey Billups, would push the Knicks back into the playoffs and into darkhorse contention for the conference championship. Well, part of that came true. ‘Melo and company got back to the playoffs, but they were summarily dumped right back out in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Celtics. The Knicks had no problem scoring on teams last year (second in the league at 106.5 PPG) but had trouble playing defense (105.7 points against) and only grabbed 40 rebounds per game (20th in the league), which isn’t bad, but is a middling number. The Knicks had a lot of feel-good stories last year in their resurgence: The rookie Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari becoming a legitimate three-point and scoring threat and Toney Douglas providing a lot of depth at the guard spot. Also gotta love the hidden gem, Wilson Chandler, who averaged over 15 PPG and became a great third scoring option for Billups to find throughout the year. Only two of those players return to this year’s edition. I think where the Knicks stuggled for consistency was the frontcourt, where Stoudemire and a cast of characters (Timofey Mosgov, Ronny Turiaf, Shelden Williams, Baloo from the Jungle Book, etc.) at the 5-spot tried to hold serve. That ended up being a big problem for the Knicks. Dominant centers/teams that could trot four athletic guards/forwards out there and create a mismatch at center (Boston) really took care of any issues the Knicks could present.

New York has made significant strides in trying to prevent that from happening again, and look to actually be a pretty impressive bunch. Take, for example, the addition of Tyson Chandler via free agency. The starting center from last year’s NBA champions? Sure…they’ll take that. Tyson’s presence immediately provides a strong rebounding presence down low, a great active defender and a pretty decent help defender to boot. Chandler’s athleticism can change the game on defense if someone breaks free to the basket: He can block shots pretty well. Chandler is also a center that can move without the basketball. He can’t shoot very well, but get him the ball down low and he’ll get to the basket. He’s an emotional guy and he’s got playoff experience.

Another big addition was Mike Bibby at the point guard spot to replace the loss of Chauncey Billups via the new amnesty clause. Another veteran player, Bibby, much like ‘Melo and STAT, is hungry for an elusive NBA title, and can there be anyone more motivated than the guy who was on the Kings during their epic early millennium battles with the Lakers? Bibby has struggled since then, playing well in Atlanta before falling off the horse and not showing much fight in Miami. Bibby still has the talent and is a great passing point guard.

Draft pick Iman Shumpert out of Georgia Tech will be a nice addition defensively and, if D’Antonio’s track record with rookies is any indication, he’ll get some significant playing time. Shumpert is the prototypical Yellow Jacket: Ridiculously athletic, strong and quick, but struggles with his shooting and plays somewhat out of control. Shumpert will not be relied upon to score, but he has to take care of the ball to make an impact.

Worth watching: It’s hard to say the Knicks aren’t in the top three of the East right now. ‘Melo and STAT Amaré are two of the premier forwards in the league. ‘Melo has proven time and time again that he can hit a shot from anywhere on the floor, and Stoudemire is once again looking like the young Amaré before microfracture surgery. Biggest thing to watch is the dynamic between Carmelo, Amaré and Chandler. Chandler plays with emotion and, as previously mentioned, has the championship pedigree now. On the outside, this is Carmelo and Amaré’s team, but who takes over and rallies the troops when the going gets tough? Also, can Landry Fields (the projected starting 2-guard right now) continue to play well, or is there a regression coming? Fields is a great slasher to get to the basket and a serviceable shooter, but getting a veteran to back him up (DeShawn Stevenson? Peja Stojakovic?) might be in the Knicks’ best interest. Depth will become a factor for the Knicks, but the starting five of Bibby-Fields-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler with Shumpert-Jeffries-Douglas-Walker off the bench is a pretty good start for the Knicks. Playoffs are essentially a given. We’ll see what can be done from there.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-3, SF-3, DK-4, CL-3, TF-2, JB-3

Last season: 62-20 (1st Central, 1st East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Indiana in first round 4-1, beat Atlanta in second round 4-2, lost to Miami in Conference Finals 4-1
Josh says: Barring the arrival of Dwight Howard, the best thing one can say about your 2012 Chicago Bulls is that they can’t be any worse. Winning at a .750 clip and a conference finals trip isn’t shabby, so that’s not any sort of insult. Yet with the Death Star Heat in place and the Knicks and Pacers improving, this is the ceiling.

The Bulls will play defense. Joakim Noah will smoke mad dope and put up 12/15’s on a regular basis. They will fill the United Center (even in the dark days when Eddy Curry was their best player, crowds filled the UC for the LuvaBulls–yes, that’s what they call the cheerleaders–and assorted stoppage-in-play entertainment) and crowds will ooh-and-aww over Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer will score in double digits and play no defense. Rip Hamilton should provide a reason to not play Keith Bogans, while bringing along his stylish facewear.  Rip and Luol Deng will combine to shoot lots of inefficient 20-footers, the latter ruined from years of Skiles & Del Negro offenses.

Tom Thibodeau might milk a little more improvement out of this roster and a few more steps behind the arc. Omer Asik is an intriguing center prospect. But in 2012, it’s not going to be enough to get over the hump. Boozer isn’t a complete bum in the playoffs (see the first two rounds of 2007), but once matched against any sort of athletic, active front line he becomes a toadstool. He struggled against the Pacers last year, who weren’t exactly throwing prime Ben Wallace at him, and LeBron can defend him one-on-one.

Rose is a top-tier crunch time scorer, and so the Bulls will beat teams with inferior late game offense (see Pacers and Hawks in last year’s playoffs). But he doesn’t have any last-three-minutes help, and all the Joakim screaming and Kyle Korver three-pointers in the world don’t make up for the lack of another franchise-type guy running alongside. Rose needs at least his Pippen, if he can’t have a Superman, and until that addition happens the Bulls are not a championship squad.

Worth watching: Derrick Rose. This needs no elaboration. For the nerdier among you, Thibodeau earned his head coaching gig with his defensive coordination in Boston; the Bulls are the team to watch if you want to refute your college basketball supremacist friend’s arguments about rotations on D. Asik is the prospect to watch, and has been asked for in every major trade proposal, but as a tweener wing from Marquette, Jimmy Butler could be a sleeper rotation candidate (see Wesley Matthews).
NOWHERE PLANS Says: JD-2, SF-1, DK-2, CL-2, TF-3, JB-1

Last season: 58-24 (1st Southeast, 2nd East)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Philadelphia in first round 4-1, beat Boston in second round 4-1, beat Chicago in Conference Finals 4-1, lost to Dallas in NBA Finals 4-2
Chris says: All the Heat did last season was change the entire landscape of the NBA. Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all deciding they wanted to play together has started a domino effect of other superstars looking to join their own “Big 3’s”. New York got Carmelo and Amar’e, and were hoping to add Chris Paul as the third piece. Dwight Howard wants to team up with Deron Williams in New Jersey. The rich are getting richer in the NBA, which absolutely sucks if you are a fan of any of the 25 non-super teams.

On the court, the Heat got off to a very slow start, and there was talks about whether Pat Riley would take over for Erik Spoelstra. But the Heat got their acts together and were dominant for the second half of the season, ending up as the 2-seed in the playoffs. After dominating the Bulls in the Conference Finals, it looked a done deal that Miami would run the slow, old Mavericks right out of the arena in the NBA Finals. You know how things went from there. The Game 2 collapse. Lebron James doing his best Harry Houdini disappearing act in the fourth quarter. If you’re like me and couldn’t stand Lebron for taking the easy way out and coming to Miami, it was great to watch.

All choking aside, Miami is still a team that should scare everybody. The potential of this team is off the charts. Many teams have one shut-down defender that they can put on the opposing team’s best player. Not many have two, and that’s the big question with the Heat: Who do you try to stop? Either Wade of James is capable of shredding a team’s second best defender. And that’s not even taking Chris Bosh into account. He’s not a superstar like Wade or James, but he’s easily the best third-fiddle in the league.

Once you get past the Big 3 though, Miami is pretty thin. Joel Anthony is still the starting center, which should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the Heat’s depth. Mike Miller didn’t make the impact the Heat hoped he would have, scoring just 5.6 PPG off the bench. Miami’s fifth and sixth leading scorers last year were Eddie House and Mike Bibby. Yikes. The addition of Shane Battier should help giving Miami a boost off the bench, and makes the Heat that much scarier on defense.

Worth watching: Ultimately, the regular season is pretty unimportant for Miami. They’re going to make the playoffs. They’re going to get a good seed. It’s what they do under the pressure of the postseason that will make or break their season. Can Lebron finally shake off the image of a choker? I almost feel a little bad for the guy. He’s one of the most unique talents ever to play in the NBA. He’s a great scorer, but an even better all-around player. Whether it’s rebounding, running the offense at the point or playing defense, Lebron can do anything you ask him to. But by choosing to come to Miami, he put even more pressure on himself to win a title and until he does, he’s going to have to deal with questions about his ability to come up in the clutch. As we found out in last year’s NBA Finals, the most talented team doesn’t always win. For James and the Heat, they’re hoping this year, the most talented team does.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-1, SF-2, DK-1, CL-1, TF-1, JB-2

Tomorrow: The Nowhere Plans NBA crew unveil their playoff predictions.

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