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NBA Eastern Conference: Taking Stock

NBA –arama

After making my preseason predictions, I said I'd check how things were going from time to time. It's time. Let's take a look around the east, see what’s going on, and fess up to a few big misses. A number of predictions are on far. Preseason predictions are in parentheses followed by current record

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics (63-19) - 20-4
Thought they were going gently into their assisted living facilities, eh? Tut tut, my skeptical friends. The ‘assisted living’ comes courtesy of one Rajon Rondo, point guard extraordinaire. Rondo plays one gear higher than the rest of his starting unit.

11 game win streak says they are rounding into shape after starting strong, stumbling, then slowly righting the ship. The only major surprise was/is the lack of 48 minute intensity, and rebounding woes. They still look like one of the best teams in the NBA to challenge the Lakers. Back with a vengeance? They are back. Vengeance comes later.

Toronto (35-47) - 11-17
International crisis or communication breakdown?
Some expected more, but they are about where I expected and for the same reason – defense. Bargnani is part of the dilemma. He is a skilled big, but not an interior presence. With a domestic vs. international player rift surfacing recently, the Raps played their best defensive game of the season afterwards. Hedo’s not fitting in like they hoped…yet.

Jose Calderon has disappointed so far in what was supposed to be his big year. The rebuilt roster should be better later in the season, but aren’t built for prolonged defense. They are giving up 103.5 over their last 5 games, which 5 points better than before.

New York (31-51) - 8-16

After a 3-14 start, the ‘D’Antonies’ are 5-2 in their last 7 games. Another team without interior defense. They looked under every rock for a bona fide PG but the right one – the draft. Biggest current embarrassment is choosing Jordan Hill over Brandon Jennings in the draft. This was going to be a learning year anyway, right? Ty Lawson, Darren Collison, Eric Maynor, Jeff Teague were also still out there. Any of those better than Chris Duhon? Maybe some are already.

D’Antoni, frankly, has disappointed as well. I’ll confess, I thought Darko Milicic was a good risk for a team starved for bigs that block shots and play defense. Go figure. Jordan Hill may end up being a good player some day, too. Winning started by benching Nate Robinson. Coincidence? Sharp shooter Gallinari continues to impress, adds some board work.

76ers (41-41)  – 6-19
Okay, this is one that’s not going as I thought it would. Oye.
Injuries are only part of the problem. Is Brand a lesser player now? Or is he just on the wrong team? Maybe it’s all bad karma for Elton leaving a good situation in Clipperland. (Yes, I did just say that.) Louis Williams (injured), Marreese Speights, and Thaddeus Young give hope for the future. It’s so bad that Iverson is back. Yeah, I know.

New Jersey (26-56) – 2-24
Say no more. Accident on the Jersey Turnpike. Tie up for miles, but not for years. No, they are not this bad. Bad luck continues with Yi Jianlian getting 50 stitches (yes 50) in his mouth courtesy of a Sean Williams elbow in a recent practice. The sooner this team can exit the swamp the better. Still, Brook Lopez will become an even better player if this season doesn’t kill him first. Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts are all good young talent.

Central Division

Cleveland (58-24) – 19-7

They are much better after starting 0-2 and 3-3. Not dominating like last season, but still a force. Shaq shooting a career low 49%, though they are now winning with him. Most lopsided team scoring distribution I have ever seen for a top team. Only three players in double digits and one of them is Shaq at 10.8 per.

Second best FG% defense and 4th best points allowed means they are still dangerous and in the hunt. Though Shaq is mostly a sideways or backwards move, if they get to the finals he helps against Lakers’ frontline. Shaq can’t slow down an already very slow team…can he? I feared this team more last year. Stop LeBron and you stop the Cavs. Am I wrong?

Stat of note: Cavs lead league in points in paint defense (34.1)

Milwaukee (35-47) – 11-12

Early season surprise coming back to earth lately. Many thought I had them too high. But Skiles always seems to get players to overachieve for a few years, until his tough guy ways get tired. Brandon Jennings makes a big splash with 55 point game but is tailing off since then. Still, he is the real deal and will figure things out.

Bucks are first in shot attempts and dead last in free throw attempts, which pretty much goes hand in hand. No one on this team gets to the line, except Jennings and Hakim Warrick.

Side Note: Toronto is known as the international team. But even they can’t compete with Milwaukee. Current starters are from 5 different countries: Turkey, Argentina, Australia, Cameroon, and U.S. Positively cosmopolitan for a city Shlitz beer made famous.

Detroit (36-46) - 11-14  

I guess they are a bit better than I thought. Will this last?  Even with key players injured, they put together a recent 5 game winning streak. They are still working a new system with a new coach. Loss of Tayshaun Prince hurts, Gordon is playing hurt, and Rip Hamilton is still in and out.

Still, the biggest surprise is the renaissance of "I’m retiring" Ben Wallace. Back up to 30 minutes and 10 rebounds a game, he can still defend, too. Detroit is 2nd best in points in paint defense. Can he do it all year and where is his help?

Pistons have the 3rd best total rebounding and 3rd best offensive rebounding differential in the league. Rodney Stuckey’s career year (19.3 pts) is offset by lower shooting %. He should stop taking three pointers altogether (21.4%)

Indiana (30-52) – 9-14
Danny Granger’s team is without Danny Granger for a while. With mediocre stats everywhere, just what do they do better than most NBA teams? Foul. They are 3rd in league with 2.2 foul differential.

Mike Dunleavy returns to a system that uses him to his best advantage and not a minute too soon. If the Pacers win 36 games, and that’s possible, that means O’Brien would have coached three straight 36-46 records here. Hey I have to find something interesting, don’t I? T.J. Ford is underwhelming again.

How are they doing attracting more fans? The past three years they went from 30th to 28th to 27th this season in attendance. They are a team with more integrity, but a few more wins wouldn’t hurt, would it?

Chicago (41-41) -  8-15                                                                                                                                                                   No one expected this meltdown. The loss of Ben Gordon’s 4th quarter points, Tyrus Thomas’ injury, Kirk Hinrich playing hurt, John Salmons’ underachieving season are all contributors, but all are secondary to Derrick Rose’s lack of noticeable improvement.

The chant for Vinny Del Negro’s head grows louder and I’m not against it. But I’d ask…who hired a rookie head coach for this team in the first place? That is where the blame should lie. Del Negro did reasonably well last season, but the wheels are falling off the wagon now.

Deng is playing well and Joakim Noah is continuing his rise up the food chain, but it’s nowhere near enough. I am fast becoming a Joakim Noah fan. Plays with passion, toughness, and heart.

Southeast Division

Orlando (60-22) -19-6
Fools go where wise men fear to tread – the paint against the Magic. They are crazy deep and probably Boston’s biggest problem in the East. Jameer Nelson returns soon and that’s not good news for opponents. Right now they are better offensively (5th rated) but worse defensively (9th rated) than last season, while giving up 2.2 more points.

This is a great situation for Vince Carter, who is playing 5 minutes less, but leads the team in scoring (19), while still hoisting up 17 shots per and will be a solid 4th quarter option for the Magic.

D. Howard is getting one less block a game, but shooting a career high in FG% (63.4%) While they probably over paid a bit for Mickael Pietrus ($5.3 mil), he continues to be a valuable piece to this team. Ryan Andersen has quietly been a nice addition. Marcin Gortat – the unhappy multi-millionaire.

Atlanta (48-34) - 18-6
This team is playing even better than I thought….and I thought this would be a  good team. Woodson said the next thing is to learn how to win on the road. The Hawks are 7-4 so far this season and that is a huge step forward. Three of those road wins were against very tough home teams - Dallas, Boston and Portland.

For a team that could lose their leader (Joe Johnson) and their coach next season, they are moving from pretender to contender. Their youthful exuberance could make up for whatever they are missing. Al Horford and Josh Smith are unique young players and Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson provide the veteran leadership. They are pasting the lesser teams and are 3rd in the league in average winning margin at +8.4 points. Just behind the Celtics and Lakers. Hmm…

Miami (38-44)  – 12-11
Dwayne Wade is to this team what LeBron is to the Cavs. Probably more so. Jermaine O’Neal is actually playing pretty well, but is a shell of his earlier self. We knew going in that the Heat go as Wade goes. Michael Beasley is improving and Haslem is solid.

They stretched the Lakers to a (lucky) Kobe Bryant banked buzzer beating 3 pointer over Wade’s outstretched hand. That probably defines their season as well as anything. With $50 million coming off the books in 2010, this team (hopefully) gets a complete rebuild. With a player option for $17 million, whether Wade stays or not remains to be seen.

Charlotte (33-49) - 10-14  
Solid defensive team (2nd in points allowed) that has trouble scoring (27th). Deliberate offense (pace: 28th  in NBA) helps keep opponents’ numbers down. 5-5 over the last ten, they added controversial, but multi-talented Stephen Jackson. It gives the team a focal point (and… gulp…leader) Larry Brown has great experience handling prima donna players and Raymond Felton is playing better since Jackson’s arrival.

Gerald Wallace, the last original Bobcat, was plucked from deep on Sacramento’s bench. Time to test him for HRH (Human Rebound Hormone). He has gone crazy boarding, up from 7.8 last season to 12.2 this year. I’d like to know the last time an established player made that kind of jump. He continues to ply his game for a team going nowhere.

Talented DJ Augustine has perplexingly gone backwards this season. Tyson Chandler, who could have been an earlier version of Joakim Noah, is showing how much Chris Paul helped his game.

But we forget just how bad this team was before Larry Brown arrived.

Washington (41-41) - 7-16
In preseason I wrote…. "everyone’s favorite ‘move up’ team." What I didn’t write was that it would take some doing to keep all these scorers happy with shots and minutes. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case. And things aren’t getting better. They are on a 6 game losing streak as I write this.

I never saw a happier, more hopeful team in the losers’ locker room than the one that ended its season against the Celtics last year. They all knew a much better year was coming. They had their version of a big three returning. But ubuntu doesn’t live here. Tragic because there is a lot of talent here. Flip Saunders has to sort this out, but I’m not sure where he starts.

I’ll end by (again) making my pitch for an unsung role player buried on the Wizards bench. Dominic McGuire would make a great (and cheap) Celtic.

There you have it. I apparently thought way too much of the Sixers. Comments welcome on all teams.

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