Wednesday, October 25, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview-- Southeast Division

Looking ahead to the 2006-07 season, the current world champs look to be right back into the thick of things at the top of the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference. Miami is a legit title contender again with the entire starting unit back. But not everything is quite perfect in Miami-- they could have serious questions about the status of their bench. Washington should be able to make another playoff run, but the question remains-- is do they have the personnel to advance deep in the playoffs. They must tighten up their defense and get better at moving the ball if they want to be in the upper echelon of the East Conf. Orlando has an solid chance of grabbing one of the last playoff spots in the East, but is not ready to be a serious contender for at least a couple years. I expect Atlanta & Charlotte to be bottom feeders once again in the East, and neither team has a real good chance of sniffing the playoffs.
*-The teams are listed in alphabetical order with last year's record in parentheses.

Atlanta Hawks--(26-56; T-4th in SE; T-13th in East)
Key additions: Speedy Claxton; Shelden Williams; Lo Wright
Key losses: Al Harrington

Congrats Atlanta, you're now the Worst Franchise in the NBA--Don Sterling & Elgin Baylor send their best regards. I know there has been uncertainity with the ownership, but that does not totally excuse the dunderheaded transactions or lack of transactions made by Billy Knight & Co. Two years in a row, the Hawks botch the draft & pass on filling their biggest hole of PG, which one of the hardest positions to fill in the NBA. The last two years they have had players like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rondo, Foye, & Marcus Williams for the taking, but passed. I find it even funnier now that Rondo & M. Williams have looked great in the preseason. Oh but don't worry, they picked up Speedy Claxton. Great, a 5-10 career back-up, problem solved. They picked up another SF to go with other 5 young SFs last year. This year they took a role-playing PF who will probably never average more than double-digit points at #5, when they could have traded down, and they let their best player walk in free agency without getting anything in return. Nice. No wonder they have no fans.

Getting back to strictly on-court issues, the Hawks have a long way to go defensively, and I can't see them making too many strides on that end this year--they were tied for the 3rd worst Def. FG% in the NBA. Rookie Sheldon Williams can help them defensively & on the boards to a degree, so his drafting was not a total mistake.

Josh Smith still shows tantalizing spurts of potential, but he seems not to understand how to put it all together. With Harrington gone, this is now Joe Johnson's team. He has the requisite skills, but does he have the killer instinct to be a #1 option, or is he more content with being a #2? Another issue for the Hawks is turnovers--they were 4th worst in the NBA--this might have somehing to do with lacking an adequate PG.

This team is still too young to seriously compete for a playoff spot. The Hawks have to solve their point guard problem as soon as possible--the free agent market is weak once again, and even though this is shaping up to be a superb draft, the one position that is weak is, yep, the point. Look at it this way Atlanta fans, someone has to be the laughingstock of the NBA now that the Clips are for real.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS--(26-56; T-4th in SE; T-13th in East)
key additions: Walter Herrmann; Adam Morrison; Othella Harrington; Ryan Hollins
key losses: Jumaine Jones

Can't really expect much out of the Bobcats once again this year and the playoffs are really not a viable option. Very young team that has just shrugged off its expansion status and is sitting on their money waiting for next summer's free agent bonanza.

The biggest weakness this team needed to improve was their scoring--a 43.3 Off. FG% will not suffice. They didn't have anyone on the team last year who was really more than a 15 ppg type of guy. This is why they scooped up the best scorer in the draft, Adam Morrison. Adam is instantly Charlotte's best pure scorer and they desparately need him to give them around 20 ppg, since no one else is really capable of getting more than 15, even a healthy Okafor. Morrison is not in the NBA for his defense, but that's why you have the versatile Gerald Wallace next to him.

Sorry but I really can't see Emeka ever being a great scorer, healthy or not. I did not think he would be more than about a 15-17 ppg guy at best coming out of UConn & that's where he pretty much is now. His shooting % is rather poor for a post guy.

Argentine forward Walter Herrmann is a poor man's Nocioni--intense, strong driver, good rebounder at the SF, decent shooter--and played great in the FIBA Worlds. He's a back-up at best in the NBA and can play either forward spot.

Not a very good defensive unit last year. Tied with Atlanta for the 3rd worst Def. FG%. But by leading the league in forced turnovers they did cut down on their opponents' possesions, so it was not totally horrible on the defensive end. With Okafor back healthy, the defense should see improvements. One of the worst rebounding teams in the league last year, but that was most certainly effected by the absence of both Okafor & Sean May for roughly 55 games each.

The fans in Charlotte should not expect much this year and should just hope for Morrison to show signs of being able to score roughly 20 ppg vs. NBA-level defenders.

MIAMI HEAT--(52-30; 1st in SE; 2nd in East)
Key additions-- Earl Barron
Key losses-- Derek Anderson

The defending champs kept the roster pretty much intact, but age & an uncertain bench are factors to success. Expect Shaq to missed his obligatory 15 games either by legit injury or just "rest". Also will see if he goes thru the motions in the reg. season; more than likely. So expect the Heat's record not to be overwhelming, probably just enough to win the SE division. Also, expect D Wade to be in the running for the MVP award once again.

But one thing that I feel needs to be noted: Shaq is still one of the most dominant players in the league, in the top 10, no doubt. The dude shot 60% the last 2 years...60%. And he still needs to be double teamed more than any player in the league. So please keep leaving him off your Top 10 player lists and saying he's washed up (Hello, Dime Mag).

The starting 5 stays intact and all the key reserves are back, but 2 key ones are a year older--Mourning & Payton. Alonzo played great last year, especially on defense, but his health is always a day-to-day thing. And GP was a key cog for the Heat, even getting alot of the crunch time minutes at point, but he is not the same defensive presence any longer & is going to be 38/39 years old this season. This team could still use a reliable back-up behind Wade. A combo guard would be nice so to cover some minutes at point as well, but Riley really has not found one yet.

Outside shooting is still somewhat of a wild card. Although, the Heat shot the ball well in the playoffs, in general they rely on guys who have a rep as generally erratic gunners like A. Walker, J. Williams, & Payton. Wade does not help matters either. He shot the deep ball surprisingly well in the playofs, but his reg. season numbers were terrible--17% and more in line with his rep--24% career (he also did not shoot the long ball well in Worlds). When he gets past 18 feet his shot seems to desert him; The one significant hole in his game that needs to be improved. Posey is their most reliable 3pt. shooter, but he's only at 34% for his career. Posey & Williams had their best 3pt. shooting seasons of their career & Walker had one of his better years--will this type of shooting happen again?

This team could ultimately be done in by poor shooting in the playoffs, don't be surprised when it happens. I foresee Miami facing more zones this year--which is the wise thing to do vs. Shaq, especially paired with Wade--zones do make Wade uncomfortable. And the zones help to keep Wade off the foul line a little more, which is always a good thing. No-brainer to throw copious amounts of zone at the Heat.

No doubt the Heat are a title contender and are probably the strongest team in the East entering the season. But by no means are they an overwhelming favorite to win the East or repeat as Champs--age, motivation, and outside shooting are key factors to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

ORLANDO MAGIC--(36-46; 3rd in SE; 10th in East)
Key additons: JJ Redick
Key losses: DeShawn Stevenson; Kelvin Cato

The Magic seem to be the chic pick as the sleeper team du jour this year; but can you really consider them a sleeper when so many people like them? They definitely have a shot at getting one of the last East playoffs spots, but I would not pencil them in quite yet.

One thing that is highly encouraging in Orlando is their frontline. Their frontline is emerging into a possible devastating 1-2 punch that could wreak havoc for years to come. Howard is no longer just a man-child, he's all man--he is one of the most physically imposing bigs in the NBA at only 20 years old. This kid owns the boards, and is a strong deterrent defensively. He still needs to refine his post moves. Darko seems to slowly be coming into his own--extremely good shot-blocker, nice elbow jumper, sweet post moves. But he still seems reticent at times--he will fade away on some shots, instead of going up strong & has mopey body language sometimes.

One thing that is of minor concern is the perimeter defense. Picking JJ surely did not help this situation. If you plan on eventually starting Nelson, JJ, & Hedo as your 1-2-3, be prepared for Howard & Darko getting alot of blocks, but also picking up fouls left & right with all the penetration let in from the perimeter. Trevor Ariza helps, but would have been better advised at drafting Rod Carney or Ron Brewer to place between Jameer & Hedo.

The Magic still have a pretty young core which might not be quite ready to make a deep run in the East Conf. playoffs. But they definitely have the ability to get either the 7 or 8 seed, and being a thorn in side of Miami, NJ or who ever wins the Central in the 1st round.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS--(42-40; 2nd in SE; 5th in East)
Key additions: Darius Songalia; Deshawn Stevenson
Key losses: Jared Jeffries

This team can score with anyone--they are stocked in the scoring department with Arenas, C. Butler, & A. Jamison capable of getting 20 every night--its the overall defense & decision making that is an issue.

I thought they were not half bad defensively in the 1st round vs. Cavs, but that was only a handful of games. During the entirety of the season they were not too good. The Wiz were 2nd best in the NBA at causing TOs, so that helped to a small degree. They just have to get better at helping each other & closing off driving lanes as a team. Losing their best pure defender, Jared Jeffries, in free agency surely does not help their quest for better team defense.

A lot of people will say that the Wizards already have a pretty good point guard in Arenas. I don't think so. Gil is not a very good point guard--he's a very good 2-guard who needs a ball-handler next to him to let him just worry about attacking the rim. Gil's just a poor decision maker with the ball, which is backed-up by high number of turnovers, terrible asst/TO ratio & one of the worst shot selections in the NBA. I've felt this way for a couple years now, and the Wizards' brass agreed with me last year by bringing in Antonio Daniels, but Antonio seemed to underachieve last year.

This summer they had a chance to grab Rondo, who would have been a perfect fit--pure point who brings some defense-- but Grunfeld screwed up royally. This team still needs a true point. They just don't move the ball real well on offense, and they also need to improve their shooting %--two things that stem from having Arenas as your point in my opinion. Coach Jordan wants to run a Princeton-style offense, but he has the absolute worst personnel for it--this team really needs some role players with some passing skills & willingness for doing the little things. Jeffries fit that well, but they let him go. Off-season signee DeShawn Stevenson could possibly bring a little defense to the table, but will wait & see.

Really can't see the Wiz being much better than they were last year, but should be in the running for one of the 2 final playoff spots. If they can somehow turn their defensive mindset around & Arenas can reign in his blockhead tendencies, they could maybe compete for a 4 or 5 seed, but I think that's a longshot. They will eventually have to fight off improved teams in Orlando, Milwaukee, Boston, & Philly for one of the last 2 playoff spots.

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