Last Weekend of Hope: Eastern Conference
On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.
In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Eastern Conference.
(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)
Atlanta Hawks: They were supposed to be a joke three years ago. Then they pushed the Celtics to seven games. They were supposed to be an after-though the following year, when they advanced to the second round. They were supposed to regress last year, when they nabbed the third seed and swept the Celtics in the regular season. Who’s to say they can’t stun the NBA again? All they’ve done is improve. And for as much as everyone, and I mean everyone, outside of the Johnson family clan and Rick Sund, think that Joe Johnson is overpaid, what if instead of taking a step back, he advances and becomes a more efficient, complete player? Josh Smith cut out the threes last year and made his game more complete. What if that only advances and somehow, mercifully, that mid-range J comes to light? And what if their chemistry, which was palpable last year, only comes together. If any franchise deserved a reward for slowly building upon a core, it’s not OKC or Portland, it’s Atlanta. Maybe injury and age could set them up for an improbable run.
Boston Celtics: 12 minutes. That’s how close they were. Sure, the age is another year gone. Sure, their starting center is on the shelf for a long time and their backups would be mega-stars in 2003. But 12 minutes, they got deeper, and they were so close. This concoction of stars has only had one championship to show for what could have been another dynasty. They’ve got another one in them. They have to. They’ve got too much pride, too much desire. They understand that this is 18, the chance to put the Lakers back where they feel the Lakers belong. Behind them. Rondo’s an even better player, a fourth star, really. Allen’s jumper isn’t going to change. Garnett’s intensity won’t change. Paul Pierce’s elbow-J won’t change. And for all the injury talk, there have been older teams who stayed healthy. For this team, this franchise, this legacy, it’s got to be possible.
Charlotte Bobcats: They don’t have a point guard. They don’t have a center (although Nazr Mohammed is criminally underrated). How are they going to compete? Perhaps the same way they’ve competed over the past three years with Larry Brown. By trades. Brown has gone into every November with a glaring weakness and each year has addressed it with trades. First it was versatility and overall talent. Then it was defensive acumen. Then it was a scoring threat. All three times, Brown managed to upgrade his team and their record. So a trade, then. A move to improve things without losing the soul of this team which is strong. They say defense wins championships, and this team has it in spades. Perhaps a championship is out of reach, but being the toughest bunch of SOB’s and getting a first round home playoff series is not. In Brown, they trust. In MJ, they hope.
Chicago Bulls: Take what’s good, seal up the holes, capitalize on opportunities. They’ve done what they needed. They needed a low-post scorer, they got a premier talent in Carlos Boozer. Sure, he’s out for two months, but this team has won half their games with far less talent. Meanwhile they have a coach they can believe in, the star who seems poised to take his place among the elite, and the franchise center for the long-haul. The Heat have no depth. The Celtics have almost no youth. The Magic... well, the Magic play in Orlando. That’s not a championship town. Chicago’s a championship town. Right? So with a complete team and two superstars, there’s no reason this team can’t put together a season to shut down the hype in Miami and Boston. All it takes is Rose-colored-glasses. Okay, that and the ability to hit a freaking jump shot.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Screw ‘em. Screw the media, screw the experts, screw the Heat, and especially, screw LeBron. This team won 60 games the past two seasons. One guy can not, did not, will not make that big of a difference. This locker room still likes one another, and still has talent. J.J. Hickson is just waiting for his chance. Mo Williams was an All-Star. Ramon Sessions has never been given a shot like he has in Cleveland. And if any team, any city, anywhere, deserved a chance at redemption in the face of adversity, it is this team, in this town, in this season. A championship? Nearly impossible. But beating the Heat in the playoffs? Now that’s something worth witnessing.
Detroit Pistons: This is not an old team. It’s a young team, built with players in their prime and with a lot of depth. Young talent, mixed with veteran skill. So... there is simply no way that the injuries of last year repeat. There is no way the disconnect happens. And there’s no way Joe Dumars, after constructing such a brilliant five-year run, could have fallen this far. Villanueva could start to get it, and Ben Gordon didn’t just suddenly lose his jumper. He didn’t leave it in his other warm-up pants. Hamilton can be moved for a better set of assets. Prince, the same. The rookies look solid-to-good. We’re not talking about the must-win-50 Western Conference here. We’re talking the swiss cheese East. Is there a position outside of power forward that the Knicks are certifiably better at? Just don’t let everything go wrong, and there’s a good chance this team bounces back.
Indiana Pacers: In Collison we trust. The team has a point guard, a star to build around besides Granger. Granger won’t have to do it all this season. Huge big-bodied center: check. Versatile forward with scoring ability: check. Distributing lightning fast young point guard: check. The rest is just pieces, and they’ve stockpiled enough talent to do so. Plus, look at all those expiring contracts they can move at the deadline. There’s no way this team fails to get it together this year. Improvement is simply winning as many games as they lose. That’s decent, that’s playoffs, that’s a reachable goal. That is not too much to hope for.
Miami Heat: Everything clicks. The chemistry works. The team stays healthy. Talent prevails. A. Ring.
Milwaukee Bucks: We’re not talking some repeated leg injury. He doesn’t have bad knees. A bad back, kind of. But even that’s been okay. The fall Andrew Bogut took was a freak accident. Greg Oden’s shattered patella was way more predictable and they call that a freak injury. So there’s no reason to think Bogut won’t stay healthy this year, once he gets healthy. And this team would have beaten the Hawks last year if he was healthy. They have the fans, the point guard, the versatility, the coach, the defense, and they added shooters and rebounders out the wazoo. This team has been constructed for the long haul and has stars. Homecourt advantage in the first round nearly guarantees a second round appearance. And once there, there isn’t a single team that wants to get the antlers. Ride the wave, fear the deer.
New Jersey Nets: Things cannot go as badly as they did last year. It’s simply not possible. Too many things went wrong, in succession. They have more depth now. They got rid of the contracts they were holding for last summer. Sure, they didn’t get the superstar. But that doesn’t mean they can’t add one. And Favors could be great. They have a passionate, proven coach who says Favors could be like Tim Duncan. Maybe that’s a stretch, especially this year, but they’ve got time. And somewhere, Masai Ujiri knows that he’s got to make a deal. All Jersey has to do is stay patient and maybe win a few games. They have to win a few. Things can’t be as bad as last year.
New York Knicks: Finally. There is a team worth the Garden taking the floor. A true superstar in Amar’e Stoudemire, in culture, name, and power. No Steve Nash? Was Nash getting those mid-range Js, the post hooks, the putback dunks? I don’t think so. Randolph is the kind of star the fans can get excited about, even as he’s never shown a ray of light. Turiaf’s a hard working son of a gun, and Mozgov looks tremendous, the kind of hidden star only D’Antoni and Walsh can find. Look, this team has been unwatchable year after year after year after year. Those days are over. They are not brilliant. They are not contenders. But they will be fun. And this is New York. Players want to play here. Specifically, your players on those other teams want to play here. It’s just a matter of time. The Knicks are back, even if that’s just in the conversation. They can’t miss.
Orlando Magic: Does your team have the most dominant center in basketball? No. Your team does not have a team-centric defensive system that feeds off rebounds, coverage, spacing, and discipline. Your team does not have what is probably the third best coach in the NBA. Your team does not have shooters that can shoot, ball-handlers who can pick and roll, and a guy who’s simply bigger than everyone else. So your doubts are unfounded. This team isn’t just a contender. It should be a favorite. It’s okay, don’t believe us. Just also don’t be surprised if we win the East, then the whole freaking thing in a few months. Boston can’t stave off Father Time forever.
Philadelphia 76ers: Sure there are questions. But if things go right, this is a playoff team. After all, most of the same core made the playoffs in consecutive years two years ago. Iguodala looks like a different player after the summer overseas. Jrue Holiday is the truth, forget the preseason (and regular season last year, and most evidence). Turner looks rusty, but he’s got worlds of time and Iguodala to take the pressure off. Elton Brand lost all that weight. It’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to put together a good season. A championship is not what they’re looking for. But they also now have Rod Thorn, who will want a superstar and has the pieces to acquire one. Just watch.
Toronto Raptors: Amir Johnson will save us all. As he has so many other teams before. As long as BC benches Bargnani, because he is the worst. Amir and Reggie Evans can score the 17.7 points per 36 Bargnani scores, in their sleep.
Other than that, there’s a trade exception that BC can get us, if he doesn’t acquire some stupid Euro player with talent, whatever that is. We need defense. But maybe Amir, Reggie, Jack, and Kleiza and do enough. If the team can just defend even a little bit, they could get better. Although most of the fan base agrees, the best case scenario is for them to tank so Bryan Colangelo is fired and Bargnani is traded for a hard-nose defender. But it’s not Jay Triano’s fault. He can stay. Hopefully something, anything changes.
Washington Wizards: John Wall. The End.