Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part I - Atlantic Division

Aaaaaand we're back!

Apologies for the long layoff -- I decided to take a little break from basketball. I still have been watching the WNBA playoffs (in case you're interested, now that the Sparks are out I'll be rooting for San Antonio in the finals), but otherwise have been out of touch. The primary reason for my break was to clear my mind and ready myself for the upcoming season (as a Lakers fan, I fully expect it to last well into June), and the secondary reason was I really enjoy the first four weeks of football season.

Luckily for me, I took my break just in time to ignore the completely idiotic "controversy" over Josh Howard's cellphone video YouTube thingie.

Other random thing that happened during my absence: Jason Williams retired. I will remember not the post-Hubie Brown, low turnover, high efficiency version, but the bombastic White Chocolate version who threw elbow passes and did crazy things with the basketball in Sacramento and Memphis. Goodbye Jason, good luck! Stephon Marbury is still a Knick, despite his best efforts. And Monta Ellis' injury turns out to have been the result of a moped accident (we think), and he might miss the entire season. More on that as news becomes available. Finally, due to my break the unread portion of my rss feed reader has grown to intimidating numbers, so I am likely behind on some other big news -- feel free to update in the comments.

Anyways, seeing as how training camps are starting up for the NBA, I guess it's time to take a look around the league and some super-early thoughts on what to expect and what to watch for. I'm calling this Round One since, as the season gets closer, there will probably be more and more to say.

Before the preview, just wanted to draw your attention to a further comment about the Stephon Marbury's philosophical dabblings. Our friend from Bushwick drew attention to a David Foster Wallace passage about language that specifically utilizes the example of the meaning of the word "green." It's well worth the read, not the least because it refers to one of my all-time favorite texts, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. In case you're interested in further study, I find the beetle in the box analogy quite useful as an illustration of the public/social nature of language. Maybe we can send Starbury a copy of the Investigations?

Anyways, on to the previews! I'll go in order, division by division. The "players to keep tabs on" is my best guess about which players may perform significantly differently from last year, for better or worse, whereas "reasons to watch" will be something to get excited about if you're tuning in to a particular team's game.:

EAST

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics
Any sort of stumble this year for them will be seen as some sort of "Championship Hangover" because the press likes to re-use worn stories rather than either coming up with new ones or doing a bit of analysis. The two surprises last year were the great defense and the fact that the team was able to keep the big three to around 35 minutes per game each. Tom Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett tend to get most of the credit for the defensive improvement, but the minutes issue might be more interesting. It wasn't just some old vets who signed for the minimum, but young players who really kept these team going not only in the regular season but even at times in the playoffs. Glenn Davis and Leon Powe played meaningful minutes off the bench, not to mention the fact that Rajon Rondo (age 21) and Kendrick Perkins (23) were supposed to be the young, weak links in the starting lineup. Rondo not only used his quickness to get penetration and hound opposing guards, but also greatly improved his mid-range shooting, while Kendrick Perkins really showed something not only in his ability to score garbage points around the basket, but in moving well enough to solidly defend the pick-and-roll away from the basket.

The loss of James Posey (discussed at length previously) probably means more time for Leon Powe, since Posey found himself at the 4 quite a bit last year. However it does leave the Celtics thin at the small forward position behind Paul Pierce. If the Darius Miles experiment doesn't work out, this might be something to pay attention to (unless rookie Bill Walker can step in as a rookie the way Powe and Davis did last year). Role-wise, Eddie House can shoot the 3 and Tony Allen can guard the swing positions, so they may see some more playing time too . . ..

Outlook: They're still one of the top 2 teams in the East.

Players to keep tabs on: Tony Allen made a surprisingly quick recovery from reconstructive knee surgery and was able to play in 75 games last year. He played solid defense, but he wasn't as strong of a finisher on offense as he was before the injury. If he regains some of that explosiveness, it should be fun to watch as well as help the Celtics. Rajon Rondo was exciting and promising as a rookie, but I doubt anyone expected him to improve as much as he did last year. Now he's entering his third year, meaning he's playing for a contract extension. Expect even bigger and better things. And finally, Patrick O'Bryant was supposed to be something, he was a lottery pick, but he's big and he played for Don Nelson, who doesn't like bigs unless they shoot three pointers. So now Mr. O'Bryant gets to learn under Kevin Garnett, and hopefully realize some of the potential that made him a lottery pick.

Reasons to watch: See the other team get Rondo'd! Also, Tony Allen, if his knee is completely healed. Before his injury, Darius Miles was one of the most fun-to-watch players in the league. I have no idea if he'll be able to play at all this year, and even if he is healthy he'll be serving a ten-game suspension before he can log a minute, but if he's at all healthy we can count on him for an amazing play, a dumb play, and a fists-on-forehead celebration a la the Clippers from early this decade.

Toronto Raptors
They traded away T.J. Ford (and Rasho Nestorivic), lost Carlos Delfino, and now they have Jermaine O'Neal. The move to Jose Calderon as the full-time point guard should help them, as long as he can hold up health-wise for an entire season. If not, they'll be depending more than expected on first-year player Roko Ukic (first year in the NBA, that is -- he's been playing professionally for several years now, and performed decently in the Olympics this summer for Croatia). If O'Neal is healthy, he should shore up the defense, which was an issue last year. Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon are all-star caliber talents. The last couple of years, they've had players come seemingly out of nowhere and play big roles on the team (first Anthony Paker and Jorge Garbajosa two years ago, then Jamario Moon last year). Will someone step up from anonymity this year? Ukic seems to fit the profile . . ..

Outlook: Probably depends on health. They're talented enough to make it to the second round of the playoffs.

Players to keep tabs on: Andrea Bargnani is still looking to prove that he wasn't a bust as a first overall pick in 2006, and now he can relax in Jermaine O'Neal's shadow, and try to provide something off the bench (and start the 15-25 games that O'Neal will surely miss due to injury).

Reasons to watch: Jamario Moon jumps really high. He used to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Enough said.

Philadelphia 76ers
They had a pretty good year last year, driven by a surprisingly solid defense and solid play from the Andres (Miller and Iguodala), that looked even better because 40-42 gets you into the playoffs in the east (as opposed to getting you 11th place in the West), then they went and signed Elton Brand in the offseason. Now expectations are high, but it remains to be seen whether the young players will continue to improve, or even stay at the high level they played at last year. Also, there still isn't a good outside shooter on the team, and with Brand on board it won't be as easy to make up for their lack of shooting by outrunning the other team.

Outlook: Let's not crown them just yet, but anything less than the 2nd round of the playoffs would probably be considered a disappointment.

Players to keep tabs on: Big things are expected of Mr. Thaddeus Young, who played surprisingly well as a rookie last year. However, with the arrival of Brand, he'll probably be moving to the small forward position, so watch for how he handles his new role. If it works out, the 76ers should be a solid rebounding team with Igoudala (who would presumably move to the 2), Young, Brand, and Dalembert (and Reggie Evans off the bench).

Reasons to watch: Thaddeus Young and (sweet) Louis Williams are always good for a few highlights.

New Jersey Nets
Goodbye Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson! Devin Harris now gets a full year as the starting point guard, with Keyon Dooling instead of Marcus Williams behind him. Yi Jianlian got his wish, and will probably be on his way to Brooklyn before his contract is up -- quite a feat for a guy stuck in Milwaukee just some months ago.

Outlook: There will be more stories written about the Nets' impending move to Brooklyn and their supposed attempts to get way under the cap in 2010 so they can sign Lebron James (friend of part-owner Jay-Z! That means he'll definitely go to the Nets!) than there will be about the team's play.

Players to keep tabs on: Yi Jianlian. If Lawrence Frank can keep him motivated throughout the game, and if his body is ready for the full 82-game schedule (he really hit the rookie wall last year), he has the skill to be a productive and exciting player.

Reasons to watch: Sean Williams is guaranteed to do something exciting. If he's having a good day, Vince Carter can still wow you as well. Also, you can tune in to see what Jay-Z and Beyonce are wearing courtside.

New York Knickerbockers
Uggh. Hiring a new GM and a new coach was necessary, but it probably also helped draw attention away from just how crappy they've been lately. I have no idea what to think of this team in the coming year. The most fun to watch players on the team last year were all young and underpaid (David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson), while the starters were often brutal to watch (with the exception of Jamal Crawford, who I liked even though no one else does). Now Balkman's gone (but Starbury, as far as we know, is still around), but the other young guys should get some more minutes, I would think. Duhon is in as (presumably) the starting point guard. He's a decent player, and probably better than he gets credit for from Bulls fans, but if he's your starting point guard, that isn't really a good sign.

Outlook: Remember how Pat Riley went to the Knicks and completely changed his style to play slow and physical? Yeah? So why does everyone keep talking about how this isn't a "D'Antoni roster" and how D'Antoni needs better shooters and faster players in order to succeed? Don't typecast the man, give him a chance!

Players to keep tabs on: Wilson Chandler, I guess. He has the tools to be a very exciting player. Maybe Gallinari, too, if he can do anything as a rookie.

Reasons to watch: Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing (Jr.) are both part of the team, as of this writing. If they make it through training camp cuts and so forth, and you squint and just look at the names on the jerseys, you can pretend it's the good old days.

SIDENOTE: Jamal Crawford's blog on Newsday is one of the more entertaining player blogs out there.

Coming up next, the Central Division!

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