Friday, October 10, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part III - Southeast Division

Before I proceed, just want to draw your attention to this game by game preview, which is absolutely brilliant.


Southeast Division

Orlando Magic
A 52 win team from last season returns most of its key contributors, adding Mickael Pietrus. I complained a while back about what seemed like excessive contracts that were forcing the Magic to shed role players. A summer ago, it was signing Rashard Lewis to a max deal (6 years for $118 million) -- in order to sign him they were forced to renounce Darko Milicic. Obviously, Lewis' addition was important and really helped the team on the court, and I wasn't privy to the negotiations so I don't know if Lewis could have been had for less. Still, losing frontcourt depth can't be a good thing (the Magic had great fortune with respect to injuries, so this didn't hurt them much). This summer, they signed Mickael Pietrus to a deal that left them unable to re-sign Keyon Dooling. Defensively, this is an upgrade, but there's a slight problem since Dooling was able to spend time as point guard, which Pietrus cannot do. So the Magic start the season with journeyman Anthony Johnson as the main backup to Jameer Nelson.

I'm assuming Pietrus can spend some time at the 2, 3, and even the 4 in a pinch, which should help keep J.J. Redick glued to the bench once again. Further, the return of Tony Battie along with Pietrus' ability to fill in at the 4 should move Brian Cook further down on the bench, which helps (sorry Brian!).

Did you realize that in four years in the league, Dwight Howard has never missed a game? He has averaged 36 minutes per game, 82 games per year. I find that remarkable. His ability to never miss games is vital to this team, as their whole strategy on both ends of the court is built around him. He is a wonderful player who can grab a lot of rebounds and finish strong and whose presence on the court helps in ways that don't always show up in the boxscore (here at fruithoopz, we say he has a lot of gravity - in this case exemplified not by his own stats but by his teammates' 3-point percentages), but I do worry about his still under-developed offensive game. Last year he averaged 1.3 assists and 3.2 turnovers per game, turning the ball over on more than 16% of his possessions. Furthermore, although he led the league in dunks and got 77% of his shot attempts as dunks or layups (which is very good), he only shot 38% on his non-dunk or layup shots (which is not that good: compare to Shaquille O'Neal - 45%, Amare Stoudemire - 47%, or Andrew Bynum - 43% -- the Stoudemire numbers are even more impressive given the fact that he added a set-shot from 15 feet out to his repertoire).

Outlook: Another solid year, but I still can't see them getting out of the second round of the playoffs.

Players to keep tabs on: Usually in this part I mention someone who might be in line for a breakout season. In this case, though, I'm paying attention to Hedo Turkoglu, who just had his breakout season, and might be due for a letdown. Last year he had a career year, the sort of year that he is unlikely to be able to match. The Magic might have been wise to trade him in the offseason while his value was high, but now we'll see if he can keep up the brilliant performance from last year (I'll be rooting for him -- I remember thinking he looked like a potential star if he could ever consistent playing time in Sacramento). His ability to create took a lot of pressure off of the Magic's so-so point guards as well as kept the ball out of the 59% free throw shooting hands of Dwight Howard late in games. The Magic will count on him again this season, although Rashard Lewis probably has the ability to step up should Turkoglu falter.

Reasons to watch: Mickael Pietrus, for the super-athletic plays as well as the incomprehensible turnovers.

Washington Wizards
The team spent the offseason re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, but both are now injured again (Jamison's injury appears minor and he shouldn't miss any time). Brendan Haywood, who had a career year last year after Etan Thomas went out with heart troubles, has now torn a ligament in his wrist and will be out for a while. Caron Butler is a fantastic player, but he'll need some healthy teammates if this team is going to succeed.

Outlook: I'm having trouble figuring out what to think of this team.

Players to keep tabs on: Andray Blatche made the step forward into becoming a rotation player last year. Here's to hoping he can build off of that success and have a breakout season this year. With Haywood out, the Wizards will be looking to him even more to step in and produce, even with Etan Thomas back in the mix.

Reasons to watch: Antawn Jamison has an odd collection of floaters and weird angled runners that are surprisingly effective. The fact that he's 6'9" only makes his shockingly effective style more strange. Every shot that goes in seems miraculous, but he makes most of them.

Atlanta Hawks
I fell a bit in love with this team over the last couple of years -- they reminded me a bit of the D-Miles/Q-Rich/Maggette/Lamar Odom Clippers from several years ago. Then, last season they drafted Al Horford who slid into the Elton Brand role, and traded Shelden Williams (kind of the Olowkandi of the bunch, if we stick to the analogy) for Mike Bibby. In the east, that's just enough to slip into the playoffs, making the Hawks' season look much better than it actually was.

In a way, it sort of makes sense that Josh Childress and Salim Stoudamire couldn't stick around. They were just too pragmatic, in a basketball sense, for a Hawks team that thrived on anarchic athleticism. Somehow, coach Mike Woodson preferred Marvin Williams' bombastic inconsistency to Josh Childress' quiet, heady, efficiency in the starting lineup. Somehow, that led to Williams having a bit of a breakthrough season, finding his game and producing with some efficiency. Stoudamire should thrive in limited minutes in San Antonio's spot-up friendly offense, and Childress will own Greece and return to the NBA as a hero.

Outlook: Joe Johnson has his best year yet. Josh Smith continues to be confusing because of his unlikely combination of abilities and flaws. The team is exciting to watch but ultimately not quite good enough to compete, they miss Josh Childress and they miss the playoffs, and the wrong person/people gets blamed at the end of it.

Players to keep tabs on: The whole team, honestly. Everyone has something to prove. Acie Law and Marvin Williams need to prove that they're not busts and it's their job to make sure future stories about the Hawks don't mention Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Mike Bibby needs to prove he's not washed up. Joe Johnson needs to prove that he belongs in the conversation of the best offensive players in the game. Al Horford needs to prove he's one of the best young frontcourt players in the league. Josh Smith needs to prove he's more than a curiosity. Speedy Claxton needs to prove he can still play. And so on, and so forth.

Reasons to watch: One day, years from now, we will look back and feel lucky that we were alive to see Josh Smith play basketball.

Charlotte Bobcats
This team is better than it seems, but I'll feel ill if they make it to 40+ wins this season and Larry Brown gets all the credit. Sean May's missing all of last year to injury was disappointing since he seemed primed for a breakout season. If he's healthy and in shape this year, he'll be a great help, and he should make it possible to move Gerald Wallace to the small forward position full-time, where he's less likely to incur yet another concussion. With Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace, and Matt Carrol in the rotation at the 2/3, Adam Morrison will hopefully stay on the bench, sending text messages to J.J. Redick.

One major concern I have as an observer: Raymond Felton can really run, and though I haven't seen much of D.J. Augustin, I'm guessing that he'll often be the quickest player on the floor. With those two as the main point guard options, and Wallace and Richardson on the wings, it seems like the team's best bet on offense is the fast break. Unfortunately, I don't recall ever seeing a Larry Brown team insist on pushing the pace, despite the fact that his teams have often been excellent defensively.

Outlook: 38-42 wins.

Player to keep tabs on: Raymond Felton has the ability to be a solid starting point guard in the league when healthy. As it stands, though, he has been about average so far. If, this year, he shows an improved jumpshot and finishing ability (perhaps he should watch videos of Tony Parker?) the team can make the jump into the playoffs.

Reasons to watch: If Troy Polamalu was a basketball player, he would be Gerald Wallace. Make it a point to watch him whenever you can this season.

Miami Heat
If the Olympics were any indication, Dwyane Wade is definitely back and healthy. The addition of Shawn Marion last season and Michael Beasley and James Jones in the offseason gives the team added depth, athleticism, and skill at the 2/3/4 positions. Unfortunately, unless Udonis Haslem becomes a way-undersized center, the team is looking at a horrendous group of centers and having Mark Blount as the starting center on opening day. Meanwhile, the point guard rotation isn't as thin as the center rotation, but it is filled with question marks. Big things are expected of Mario (Superintendent) Chalmers, but he's a rookie. Chris Quinn, the D-League call-up, might become a solid part of the rotation. Marcus Banks has shown flashes as a defensive point guard, but isn't dependable on the offensive end. And Shaun Livingston, if he regains his pre-injury form, is potentially a star. But if he ever does regain his form, it probably won't be this year.

Outlook: Lots and lots of appearances on the "top 10 plays of the night," and a battle with Atlanta to stay out of the bottom of the division. I could be way off on this, though, it's hard to tell.

Players to keep tabs on: Chris Quin. Solid but unspectacular, if he can stay in the rotation, then all he needs to do is keep getting the ball to Wade, Marion, Beasley, Haslem, and Dorrell Wright.

Reasons to watch: Dorrell Wright on the fast break.

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