As a result of the NBA lockout, the 2011-2012 NBA season is an unprecedented 66 games crammed into 5 months. Along with a shortened season, teams had a shortened training camp, which made it much harder to establish chemistry among teammates and to learn new coaching philosophies. Thus, teams with youth and continuity have an early edge since they are able to handle the pounding of back-to-back games better than older teams and haven’t needed to reestablish chemistry. With this in mind, here are my early picks for contenders, pretenders, and overachievers for the Eastern Conference.
After a year of scrutiny, Miami’s “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh have better familiarity with one another, making their game play more crisp and efficient. During the offseason, the Heat added title-hungry Shane Battier for his veteran leadership and three-point shooting. They also drafted Cleveland State point guard Norris, Cole who has already shown confidence to take and make the big shots. The most promising thing is the fact that Wade and James were not making many three-point attempts early in the season. This is bad news for the rest of the league because it shows they are more confident in establishing themselves in the paint and getting to the free-throw line for easy points.
1. Miami must respond to the zone defense that teams like the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks have used effectively to slow down James and Wade early in the season.
2. Bosh added about 20 pounds of muscle this offseason to bang in the post, but he is still reluctant to establish himself in the post.
With arguably the best defensive coach and MVP Derrick Rose’s progression, the Bulls are poised for another Eastern Conference run. During the offseason, they upgraded at the shooting guard position with Richard Hamilton. The Bulls have great depth and a solid combination of youth and veteran presence, so with another year of chemistry-building, they have a shot at the title. Look for Carlos Boozer to put up the numbers he once did with the Utah Jazz since he is more familiar with the system.
1. The reliability of the defensive play of Boozer and Joakim Noah in the fourth quarter is questionable.
2. Richard Hamilton might disrupt the Bull’s chemistry and have personnel problems like he did with Detroit coaching staff last year.
New York Knicks:
The New York Knicks formed the best front court in basketball this offseason by landing Tyson Chandler and aligning him with All-Star forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Anthony and Stoudemire are both dynamic scorers who are a threat to drop 30 or more points on any given night and Chandler is a double-double machine that will anchor their defense. However, the Knicks are pretenders because they are pretending that they have a capable guard to distribute the ball to these guys. Chandler has only been effective when he has had a great guard lobbing the ball to him (i.e. Chris Paul and Jason Kidd). Moreover, in order to execute coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, the team needs a capable point guard, which they currently don’t have due to injuries. Lastly, it is very apparent that Anthony and Stoudemire still need to time to mesh their styles with one another.
This is the make-or-break season for the Hawks core of Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford. People have been saying for the last couple of years that this team has a tremendous upside because of the youth and talent of their starters, but now it’s 2012 and their team is one of the oldest in the league. They didn’t make a splash in the offseason aside from adding Tracy McGrady, so they didn’t need to reestablish chemistry during training camp. But the Hawks are pretenders because, even though they are very good at beating the mediocre teams of the league, they can never match up with better teams.
The recurring theme in Orlando this year is “Dwight’s Plight,” which is starting to cascade over the city, just as “’Melo Drama” did for the Denver Nuggets last year. With general manager Otis Smith holding ground this offseason and not trading Dwight Howard, they have to win now in order convince Howard to stay. Hedo Turkoglu is showing signs of his 2009 season form and the steady progression of J.J Reddick and Ryan Anderson are a breath of fresh air. Still, the Magic are pretenders because this lineup is virtually the same as last year, with the exception of Glen Davis. Last year, it didn’t get them past the first round of the playoffs. Nothing will change this year, so the Magic will be wise to move Howard at the deadline and not let “Superman” fly away during free agency.
In their first-round playoff series against the Bulls last year, the Pacers lost to the Bulls in five hard-fought games that left fans really impressed and content with the progress of their team. This offseason, the Pacers added All-Star forward David West to pair with the rising Roy Hibbert in the post. The Pacers probably won’t beat out the Bulls for Central Division control, but they will be a first-round nightmare for any team because of their youth, depth, and balance.
The Bucks had a disappointing season last year because they were plagued with the injuries of their two stars, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut. This season, both are healthy and they have added Stephen Jackson to their team. This team will likely play under radar most of the year and may snag a 7th seed in the East. They could even give a team like the Heat matchup problems in the first round of the playoffs.
Predicted Eastern Conference Playoffs Standings
1. Miami Heat
2. Chicago Bulls
3. Boston Celtics
4. New York Knicks
5. Atlanta Hawks
6. Indiana Pacers
7. Orlando Magic
8. Milwaukee Bucks