To kick off the big NBA season preview, I feel I should provide some warnings to you the readers.
I am horrible at predictions. Awful. I’m the guy who said there was no way Miami would win the title, even though I knew full well that Dwayne Wade was a series-changing caliber superstar who could get every call known to man.
I’m the guy who truly believed that Team USA would win the gold. Whoops.
I’m also the same man who laughed and laughed at the thought of a Lakers team led by Shaq, Kobe, Malone, and Payton losing to the no-superstar Pistons in 2004. Clearly, I’m still not over that one.
So, that brings us to today and the start of an eight-part NBA preview. You’ll get my predictions on all six divisions, and then we’ll break down the playoffs for each conference.
You’ve been warned.
I would not run out to Vegas and put money on anything written here. However, I’m hopeful this is the year that I’m right about something since multiple people (thanks to all 8 of you) are reading this.
And really, what better place to start than arguably the NBA’s worst division and certainly the easiest to predict: The Southeast division.
MIAMI HEAT (2005-2006 record: 52-30. Won NBA Championship)
Predicted division finish: 1st
The defending NBA Champions bring back essentially the same team from 2005-2006. The anchors remain Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. The “role players” remain Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning, James Posey, Jason Williams, Udonis Haslem and Gary Payton.
Much to my surprise, this actually worked last year. I’m still not sure how.
If you watched the Heat at all during the regular season, they were the biggest Jekyll and Hyde team in the league. On certain nights, it looked as though they could beat anyone. Then the following game, they’d be blown out at home by the Warriors. Do you realize the defending NBA champs finished one game over .500 on the road?
I guess the obvious answer to how it worked is that Dwayne Wade became the game’s best player and one heck of a playoff closer. For three straight years now, he’s been the top postseason superstar, yet no one wants to acknowledge this has been going on that long. He carried a Miami team that arguably had no business being in the playoffs to the second round in 2003-2004. If he’s healthy for Games 6 and 7 of the 04-05 Conference Finals, I’m convinced the Heat would have beaten the Pistons and Stan Van Gundy might still have a job. And then last year, well, if you don’t know then stop coming to this web site.
Wade’s continued emergence as THE guy in the league means that Shaquille O’Neal’s not so subtle fall to better than average big man is not so important. This is D-Wade’s team. Everyone knows it. Shaq will give what he has left, but the Heat can only repeat if Wade is healthy.
The supporting cast is old. Shaq, Zo, Payton, maybe Williams have all seen their prime come and go. The question for this franchise now is whether they can squeeze one more title out before they need to rebuild.
To me, the answer to that question doesn’t even rely on those players.
Udonis Haslem, James Posey and Antoine Walker need quality seasons for a repeat to take place. Their consistency is key for a team that finally defined everyone’s role in the playoffs. If Haslem can continue to get better at rebounding and finishing and Posey can be the team’s lockdown defender and three-point weapon, and if Antoine Walker plays within himself and remembers to drive to the basket instead of taking horrid 3s, then this could work again.
One more thing to watch for is the development of Dorrell Wright and Wayne Simien. Both should get more minutes this season, and both players are important to building something around Dwayne Wade in the future. Wright got rave reviews in Summer League play, and the word is that he’ll be worked into a deep guard rotation.
Here’s a prediction you can take to the bank. The Heat will win at least 50 games and will win this Southeast Division handily. What they do after that is what everyone is waiting to see.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS (2005-2006 record: 42-40. Lost in first round to Cavs)
Predicted division finish: 2nd
The Washington Wizards are one of those teams that seem to be treading water in the NBA. They’ve finished in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack in each of the last two seasons. They’ve got some serious talent on their roster. However, they seem to have gone as far as they can go when you match them up with the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler make up a pretty darn good three-headed scoring monster. Arenas is always out to prove someone wrong, and I’m sure he’s fired up after being cut from the US World Championship roster. The issue for the Wizards is that while Arenas, Jamison and Butler can put points on the board, they struggle in other aspects of the game.
Who will run the show on this team? Who will grab the key rebounds? Who will make the big defensive stop?
I don’t know. They lost their best defender when Jared Jeffries bolted to New York. They replaced him with DeShawn Stevenson. That’s a downgrade.
Sometimes stats jump out at you. Here’s one that would scare me a lot if I were a Wizards fan. When the opposition scored 100 points or more last year, the Wizards were 11-30. When the Wizards scored 100 points or more they were 28-16. They’re not winning the shootouts.
They still are a complete mess in the frontcourt. Brendan Haywood is tall, so he’s got that going for him. He averages just fewer than 6 rebounds a game. That is not so good. Etan Thomas has shown flashes of being a stud, but he hasn’t put it together for prolonged stretches. They added Darius Songaila thru free agency. Songaila is solid, but his weaknesses fit with everyone else’s weaknesses so I can’t see how he makes them better.
Jamison and Butler can’t be the teams rebound leaders if this is going to work. Someone else is going to have to become of factor night in and night out, and I can’t find a player on this roster that jumps out to fill this role.
For the Wizards to succeed and return to the playoffs as a 4 or 5 seed, they’ll need to make a big commitment to defense. They can score with the best of them, but with Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Detroit and New Jersey all likely to finish ahead of them in the Eastern Conference, a first round exit looms as a successful season for Washington.
ORLANDO MAGIC (2005-2006 record: 36-46. Missed playoffs)
Predicted division finish: 3rd
Now here’s a team that excites me.
If there’s one NBA franchise poised to break out in 2006-2007, it is the Orlando Magic.
Now that I’ve gotten the hyperbole out of my system, here is my reasoning.
Dwight Howard is about to do become one of the top big men in the league. It’s amazing to think that there was actually debate over whether Howard or Emeka Okefor should be the top pick in the 2005 draft.
If you watched Howard play at the end of last season or in Japan at the World Championships, you saw a guy with serious potential to average 20 points and 15 rebounds per game (I want to write 20/20 but that’s ridiculous, right?). He’s a defensive powerhouse with tremendous shot blocking ability. The scary part of all of this is he’s only going to get better. He’s 20. This will be his 3rd NBA season. I am predicting a big time breakout season from Howard, and Orlando should be excited about it.
In addition to Dwight Howard, the rest of the roster features young talent that seemed to prosper under Brian Hill’s tutelage late last season. Darko Milicic has no pressure on him. If he becomes anything close to what he was projected to be then Orlando is in great shape for years. If he isn’t, they gave up Kelvin Cato. Darko is in the perfect situation. He’s playing along side one of the game’s brightest future stars and no one’s set up for a positive season more than the #2 pick in the 2003 draft.
They have good depth at point guard with Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo manning the position. Nelson is a tad undersized for the NBA, but he’s a warrior. Arroyo made the U.S. look horrible in international play, and if he can look half as good in the NBA, the Magic should be in fine shape. They also brought Keyon Dooling back in free agency, so there’s good depth in the backcourt.
J.J. Redick comes to Orlando with tons of baggage. He’s got a bad back, he’s got a DUI conviction and he’s got a ton of knocks on his game. But much like Darko, Redick finds himself in a nice situation. Dwight Howard is going to have to be doubled constantly, so the odds of Redick finding himself wide open are pretty good. The Magic isn’t in denial here. They brought Redick in because he can shoot the basketball and if he knocks down his open looks, he can be a dangerous asset.
The problems are obvious. They’re young. They probably won’t defend very well. Grant Hill will get hurt and they’ll rely on Hedo Turkoglu and Trevor Ariza to play lots of minutes. With all of that said, I still like them a lot. I might be a year early here, but this team feels like a 7 or 8 seed to me.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (2005-06 record: 26-56. Missed playoffs)
Predicted division finish: 4th
If the Charlotte Bobcats were a college basketball team, Dick Vitale would be screaming at you about how sensational they will be this season. Sadly for everyone, no one can hear Dicky V in Charlotte.
There is some talent here.
Emeka Okefor will one day be an above average player if he can stay healthy. He only played in 26 games a year ago, but he averaged a double-double. With work and health, he could be an Elton Brand like player in a few years.
Gerald Wallace has emerged into a pretty reliable scorer since coming to Charlotte in the expansion draft. He’s also a defensive threat after leading the league in steals per game a year ago. At 24, he’s still improving in all aspects of his game.
Sean May is another big man who suffered from injury problems. His hard work and rebounding will be a nice addition if he can bounce back healthy.
Raymond Felton had a very nice rookie season, averaging 12 points and 6 assists. If he has some healthy big men to feed, he could enjoy an excellent sophomore campaign.
Then there’s rookie Adam Morrison. He has horrendous facial hair. I mean it’s so bad EA Sports made it a marketing campaign for NBA Live 07. While I feel Morrison should shave, his offensive skills are in no way in need of a makeover. He’s fearless with the rock in his hands, and that’s what the Bobcats have been missing. Like Okefor and Felton, he’s also a fierce competitor who should help spark a turnaround over time. I’m sure Michael Jordan’s new role with the franchise will also help the team’s competitive drive, especially since there’s no way he’ll come out of retirement again. Right? Please make sure of this!
The good news is that they’re getting better. With healthy seasons from key players, it’s not unrealistic to think the Bobcats might finish ahead of the Hawks in this division.
ATLANTA HAWKS (2005-2006 record: 26-56. Missed playoffs)
Predicted division finish: Last
The Hawks are a mess.
They made a huge mistake last year by passing on Chris Paul in the draft. The whole Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw thing sort of opened some people’s eyes.
But this is a new year! They’ve solved the point guard problem by bringing in Speedy Claxton. Can you hear the buzz?
They passed up Randy Foye and Brandon Roy (remember, they don’t need guard help) to draft Shelden Williams from Duke. Why add sizzle when you can add boring and adequate?
Look, I don’t mean to kill Claxton and Williams. They’re fine additions. They just don’t excite me.
Al Harrington is gone in exchange for a future 1st-round pick. I like the idea of moving Harrington, since it opens the door for Marvin Williams to get lots of minutes. However, to not get anyone who can step in and play immediately seems odd for a team with this many holes.
Unless Joe Johnson REALLY lives up to his contract or all the youth makes giant leaps overnight, this is going to be another long season in the ATL. Good thing no one there remembers the Hawks are still around.