By John Schmeelk
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EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
With the NBA season kicking off on Wednesday, here’s my preview and ranking predictions for the 2012-2013 NBA season. I figure it makes sense to get these out there so all of you can mock me for my awful selections later in the year. This is how I see the Eastern Conference breaking down, and my season award winners.
- Miami Heat – LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet, and he carried the Heat to the championship last year. He transformed his game and operated much closer to the basket for most of the season. Despite a ridiculous regular season, he still played his best ball in the biggest moments of the playoffs. With all that said, the Heat were still a couple makes or misses away from not winning a title. I don’t believe they are as far ahead of the field as others do. Dwayne Wade is a year older, and the team’s big additions — Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis — aren’t exactly spring chickens. Injuries could become a real problem. Miami is still the best team in the conference, but they can be knocked off if the ball bounces right.
- New York Knicks – Yes, I realize this spoils my Knicks preview, but so be it. Defense will carry the Knicks while Amar’e Stoudemire is hurt, with good individual defenders at nearly every position. How good they will be will come down to how much Carmelo Anthony has grown as a player. Will he play within the confines and ball movement of the offense, or hold the ball and go one-on-one as his teammates only watch? The Knicks can’t win that way. If Carmelo becomes more than just a scorer and plays the right way, chemistry with Stoudemire (if he is healthy) will come and so will 50+ victories.
- Boston Celtics – Two of Boston’s stars (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) are a year older, and new addition Jason Terry is past his prime. They are trying to get younger with Rajon Rondo, the return of Jeff Green, the improving Avery Bradley and two draft picks (Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo), but Garnett and Pierce are still the heart of the roster. Injuries will hurt their regular-season record, but come playoff time they might still be the biggest threat to the Heat.
- Brooklyn Nets – The Nets have a nearly completely revamped roster, and it’s a good one. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are a good backcourt, but one that needs the ball in their hands a lot. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries are good role players, and the team should focus on getting Brook Lopez more looks in the post. Throw in MarShon Brooks and I don’t like the perimeter scoring focus of the team. I also question its interior defense. Neither Lopez nor Humphries are intimidators. It will be a good inaugural season in Brooklyn, but not a great one.
- Chicago Bulls – Derrick Rose’s knee injury keeps the Bulls out of the top half of the conference. Their coaching and defense is enough to keep them in the mix until Rose comes back. While he’s out, they will need Carlos Boozer to score some more. Kirk Hinrich should be a competent replacement at point guard, but there is still a huge hole at shooting guard. I do not think Marco Belinelli is the answer. No one will want to see the Bulls come the postseason.
- Indiana Pacers – Frank Vogel did an excellent job getting 42 wins out of the Pacers last year. They did it with defense and offense, but I wonder if it can be carried into 2013. The team likes to run the offense through David West in the high post and Roy Hibbert down low. Both big men cannot only score, but also pass well. George Hill, Paul George and Danny Granger provide the perimeter firepower, but I’m not sure they will be consistent enough to put enough points on the board.
- Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are trying to rebuild on the fly with Josh Smith and Al Horford as their two cornerstones. Throw in Jeff Teague and Devin Harris at point guard, and the Hawks should still be respectable. With Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams departing, however, their play at the two and three are very suspect. Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, John Jenkins and Kyle Korver do not inspire a ton of confidence.
- Toronto Raptors – I think the Raptors finally get back to the playoffs this year. I love their point guard combination with Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon. I also believe Andrea Bargnani will have his best season as a pro, and Jonas Valanciunas will show the post game that got him drafted so high. Much of the team’s success will land on DeMar DeRozan and whether or not he can take that next step into an All-Star player on the wing. Can he shoot it consistently?
- Philadelphia 76ers – I understand why the Sixers made the changes they did in the offseason, since they had maxed out with their current talent. But in my opinion, their current ensemble of players is not playoff caliber. Andrew Bynum already has knee issues, and who knows when he will play again. Jason Richardson is long in the tooth and Nick Young is one of my least favorite players in the NBA. Dude, stop shooting. If this team is going to make the playoffs, Evan Turner is going to have to be a true leader for this team, and run the point when Jrue Holiday isn’t on the floor. I see him as a solid support player, not a star.
- Detroit Pistons – I’m a huge fan of Greg Monroe, and I think he is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Unfortunately, he does not have enough players around him to win consistently. They are trying to move Rodney Stuckey to shooting guard, with Brandon Knight taking over at the point. Corey Maggette and Carlos Villanueva coming off the same bench is amusing. They might actually get into a physical altercation over who gets to shoot more.
- Milwaukee Bucks – Despite their success at the end of last season scoring the ball, I don’t like the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings combination. I’m not sure there are enough shots to go around. Ersan Ilyasova is an emerging player, but the rest of their front court (Mike Dunleavy and Samuel Dalembert) is not exactly awe-inspiring. The Bucks also don’t play any defense, a surprise for a Scott Skiles team, and I don’t see that changing with their current personnel.
- Washington Wizards – Once John Wall gets back he finally has some veterans (Nene Hilario, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor) to help him out. Throw in a good rookie shooter in Bradley Beal and a scorer in Jordan Crawford, and the Wizards are not going to be a complete laughingstock.
- Charlotte Bobcats – The same goes for the Bobcats, who have some nice additions to stabilize a young roster. Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon will try to add some leadership to a young group with Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson (who is underrated), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo. They won’t be good, but they won’t be a train wreck, either.
- Orlando Magic – The Magic are a whole new team, and without much to show right now for the Dwight Howard trade, they are going to struggle. They have a bunch of solid, decent vets like Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Hedo Turkoglu. Arron Afflalo might have a breakout year, and I would like to see first-rounders Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless contribute.
- Cleveland Cavaliers – Unfortunately for the Cavs, they are still pretty awful. Kyrie Irving is the real deal, but rookie Dion Waiters is going to take time to develop. Tristan Thompson isn’t much more than a solid player at the four. They simply need more talent.
I’m going to give you my award winners in this half of the preview. These are the guys I think will win the award. The guys I think deserve it will be in parenthesis at the end of each selection. In my Western Conference Preview tomorrow, I’ll go through my playoffs and finals predictions.
MVP: LeBron James – People know he is the best player on the planet, and he is playing for one of the league’s top teams. Barring an injury it will be an easy MVP selection. (LeBron James)
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard – He was annoyed he didn’t win the award last year, and he’ll use that as a chip on his shoulder. The media buys into him despite his inconsistent effort. (Tony Allen is the best lockdown perimeter defender in the league and causes countless turnovers. In this era of basketball, that can be more valuable than interior defense.)
Sixth Man of the Year: J.R. Smith – Mike Woodson seems set on leaving him as a bench player, and with the Knicks’ injuries he can easily be a 15-point scorer off the bench. With James Harden starting in Houston, and Manu Ginobili potentially starting for the Spurs, I go with Smith, who will try to cash in on a contract year. (Jeff Green. I think he fits in well with Boston and does a little bit of everything to make Boston a very good basketball team. He’ll score less than Jason Terry off the bench, but he’ll be more valuable.)
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau – He should have won last year but will get the nod in 2013 for keeping the Bulls very competitive with Derrick Rose. (Dwane Casey. As the coach of the only true surprise team in the NBA, he will deserve the nod for getting Toronto to play defense and into the playoffs.)
Most Improved Player: DeMarcus Cousins – He is a player with a ton of talent, and I think he finally puts it all together this year and turns into a legit All-Star center. He isn’t around the best group of players in Sacramento, but I’ll roll the dice on someone with a ton of talent. (Kawhi Leonard. He won’t put up the numbers that Cousins does, but he will be very valuable to the Spurs on both ends of the floor.)
Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis – The hype will get the best of the media and Davis will get the nod. (Jonas Valanciunas. He’s not your stereotypical European big man. He bangs, plays defense and rebounds.)
Executive of the Year: Billy King – The Nets will make the most improvement, and with all the changes Billy King made in the offseason he is the obvious choice. (Billy King)
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So the Knicks are ranked second and the Nets are ranked fourth. Sound accurate to you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…