There are still a few valuable free agents left but most of the offseason moves are in the books and almost all of the big rumors are surrounding lesser teams so I thought it would be a good time to check in on the NBA and see how the teams are stacking up.
Obviously there are five teams at the top, the Lakers and Spurs in the West and the Cavs, Celtics, and Magic in the East. After that, it's pretty wide open with a number of teams looking to make it to the second season this year. Some of them are team trying to rebound from a lost season while a bunch of young squads have their sights set on getting out of the lottery and into the playoffs.
So how does it look right now?
1. LA Lakers: For the first time in years, the focus in LA won't be on Kobe Bryant. The addition of Ron Artest gives the Lakers are very good player and tough defender but he also is a headcase who breaks plays and could be subtraction by addition. Phil Jackson won't be able to sit back and coach from the seat of his pants this year as Artest could put all of Phil's Zen teachings to the test. Right now, I'm not willing to bet against the Lake Show but they are by no means a sure thing to repeat.
2. Boston Celtics: On the bright side, injuries were what derailed the Celtics' quest to repeat as NBA champs. If KG doesn't go down, they probably get past Orlando and the battle versus the Lakers would have been epic. On the other hand, KG's injury might be a sign of the times and the team is filled with veterans who might also get worn down by a full season. Thankfully, the Celts bolstered their bench with Rasheed Wallace and (supposedly) Marquis Daniels, two guys who can eat some minutes and let the Big Three rest.
Then there's Rajon Rondo. Rumors have been flying about his attitude. It's been a while since I've been torn on a player like Rondo; sometimes I love him, most times I wonder if the Celtics wouldn't be better off selling high while he's still a cheap trade asset. Either way, he'd have to become an capital A Asshole to let his ego derail the Celtics' title chances and I just don't see that happening.
San Antonio Spurs: Richard Jefferson could be the missing piece of the puzzle but it depends on which RJ shows up. When Jefferson came into the league, he was a third wheel who played his role and wasn't afraid to focus on defense. Over the last few years, however, he's become a guy who is more focused on offense and often slacked off on his defensive assignments. If RJ turns back the clock, the Spurs could be tough to beat. But then there's the bigger "IF".
The Spurs biggest problem is health, or lack thereof. This team simply can't stay make it through the season without getting banged up. They have to keep an eye on Manu Ginobili; if he doesn't seem like he's going to make it through the season, they might have to bite the bullet and deal him and his expiring contract for someone that will be in one piece come playoffs time.
4. Orlando Magic: I love the addition of Vince Carter. As good as Hedo was, I think Vince has two or three great years in him. In fact, I liked pretty much all of their offseason moves. The Magic might have a rough start with all of the new pieces but I think they'll still be able to make a strong run towards another Finals.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Everyone saw the Cavs getting Shaq as a game changer. And it might be. For the Cavs and LeBron James. Cleveland may have some of the same issues that Phoenix did with the Diesel. He's going to clog up the lane, which could make the team easier to defend. Zydrunas Ilgauskas's ability to knock down jumpers is a much better complement to LeBron than Shaq's girth. In fact, the past approach to the season might be to start Big Z and have Shaq anchor the second unit. The Cavs are a great team but I think all of the teams above them can game plan to beat them in a seven game series.
THE GOOD BUT NOT GREAT
6. Denver Nuggets: It will take one or two of the Nuggets' players to make huge strides for them to challenge the elite of the NBA. Unfortunately, I'm not sure we can expect much more improvement from Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith so the Nuggets might have to be content with being the best of the also-rans
Portland Trailblazers: The Blazers have a deep talent pool but to become an elite team, they need to swap some of that depth for a star. I have no problem with how Kevin Pritchard has played his hand so far but if he keeps holding onto all of his cards and doesn't try to make a deadline deal this offseason, I'll probably be off the bandwagon. As for the team itself, Andre Miller is an improvement at the point but he doesn't fix their biggest issue, which is a lack a killer instinct. They absolutely wilted when they were on a big stage last year. Brandon Roy has a bit of a mean streak and Rudy Fernandez might have some tenacity in him, but the rest of the team seems pretty soft.
8. Utah Jazz:: The bottom line is that the Jazz need to trade Carlos Boozer for a swingman that's worth a damn. Until they do that, there's really not much to talk about. They are a good team with a ceiling of home court in the playoffs and a competitive second round loss.
9. New Orleans Hornets: Maybe Emeka Okafor can help his new teammates realize how lucky they are to be playing on a winning team but if that doesn't happen, New Orleans will remain a squad that seems to understand that they are good but not good enough to win it all. I really like Byron Scott but I think he's done about as much as he can with the team and they might be better off with a new coach and a fresh start.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Is the NBA really supposed to be worried about the additions of Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas, and Drew Gooden? I really think that Mark Cuban is testing the loyalty of Dirk Nowitzki because I really don't see any other reason for him to stay in Dallas. The Mavs do have a couple of nice trade chips in Erick Dampier and Josh Howard's expiring contracts that could be used to improve their squad but I really don't know if they'll be able to pull it off. It's not like Donnie Nelson has a history of making great trades.
11. Phoenix Suns: The Shaq experiment failed but what did it really cost them? Shawn Marion? The Suns are still a good team. Of course, they used to be a very good team so even their moderate success isn't all that exciting. The key, of course, is Amar'e Stoudemire. If he can bounce back from his injuries, the Suns are a tough team to beat. Unfortunately, most of the upper echelon teams should be up to the task and able to tough it out.
12. Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta's a solid team but adding Jamal Crawford and a raw guard in
rookie Jeff Teague isn't going to make them any better. On the bright side, they at least maintained their squad and should be solid but they didn't make moves to take the next step and the only way for them to go is down. It's also a make-or-break year for Al Horford and, to a lesser extent, Josh Smith. These two are the only hope the team has of improving and, so far, it seems like they are locked into their current level of production.
13. Miami Heat: A lot of people might look at the Michael Beasley situation and think "That won't help matters" but isn't that exactly why someone goes to rehab? To become someone who can be a more useful member of society? If Michael Beasley gets his head on even remotely straight, this team could be very dangerous. I think Mario Chalmers could be a candidate for Most Improved Player and Dwyane Wade is Dwyane Wade. Like many teams, the Heat have an expiring deal (Jermaine O'Neal) that could be used to add the kind of player that could make them an elite team. Will it happen? Right now, I'd say the odds are 35/65 against.
14. Toronto Raptors: Hedo Turkoglu might be a bit overrated as a player right now but I don't think you can underrate the attitude that he brings to a team. The Raptors were a soft team but now they've added Hedo, Jarrett Jack, and Reggie Evans to toughen them up. Andrea Bargnani actually showed signs of being a legit NBA starter last season and Marco Belinelli finally has a shot to live up to his Summer League hype. But it, of course, all comes down to Chris Bosh. If he plays with a chip on his shoulder, this team could end up with home court in the first round of the playoffs. If he doesn't, they could miss out on the playoffs altogether.
15. Philadelphia 76ers: When Philly added Elton Brand, people went gaga over the Sixers. Now that he's coming off of injury, it's like he's a complete non-factor. Yes, the team struggled with him last year but I think new coach Eddie Jordan will game plan with Brand in mind, whereas last year the Sixers just tried to fit him into their running system. Nevermind that the running system should probably be scrapped since this is a team without a starting backcourt. Both Andre Iguodala and Thad Young showed that they are best suited for the SF spot (Thad is now best used as a small ball power forward) which leaves Lou Williams and Willie Green/Jason Kapono as the starting guards. I actually like Lou Williams as a fifth starter (especially if Iggy runs the offense as a point forward) but the shooting guard spot and backup PG (Jrue Holiday will not be ready to run a pro team this year) are major issues.
16. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are here because of the promise they showed against the Celtics in the playoffs but this is not a team that I would bet money on. They are still relying on Ty Thomas too hold down the PF spot and they need Luol Deng to bounce back from last year's injury and the year before's crappy performance. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how well he fits with the new Derrick Rose Era Bulls. New GM Gar Heard has his work cut out for him and he's responded by doing absolutely nothing this offseason.
THE WILD CARDS
17. Washington Wizards: I'm rooting for Gilbert Arenas because he seems like a good guy but I just can't hop on the Wizards bandwagon like a lot of pundits are. People keep citing the additions of Randy Foye and Mike Miller but I'm just not sure how you can get fired up about players who, by all accounts, can't even unseat DeShawn Stevenson from the starting 2-guard spot. Miller was average at best last year and Foye is a volume scorer on a team that doesn't need another volume scorer. What the squad needed was defense and they pretty much completely ignored that half of the game this offseason. A healthy Arenas along with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison could be dangerous, especially with Flip Saunders as coach but this is a team filled with question marks that wasn't even that great when they were healthy. At their peak, the Gil/Butler/Jamison Wiz won 45 games and lost in the second round. Gil and Jamison (who was not impressive last season) are going to need to turn back the clock if this team is going to live up to the hype.
18. Detroit Pistons: I really don't like much of anything the Pistons have done recently but they have a decent amount of talent and a possible sleeper rookie in DaJuan Summers. I don't like their frontcourt (especially on defense) and I really don't know how well their backcourt pieces work together. They have talent and hopefully they'll have a better attitude then they've had in the past but I really don't see them having much chance of making it out of the first round of the playoffs (if they can even get there).
22. Indiana Pacers:: The Pacers have a fairly underwhelming roster but most of their guys can play and fill their roles and nobody does more with solid but not great talent than Jim O'Brien. If TJ Ford can keep his head on straight, these guys should be able to fill the void if any of the teams ahead of them should falter. I don't think they'll pressure many teams but they'll at least keep them honest.
23. Charlotte Bobcats: If they get Allen Iverson, they could be an interesting team to watch and might have a shot of the playoffs. If they don't get Iverson, they'll be a nice enough team that just isn't actually good enough to escape the lottery. Larry Brown can coach his heart out but this team just doesn't have the horses.
23. OK City Thunder: The Thunder are young and hungry but I'm just not in love with their frontcourt. I think Nenad Krstic is underrated but he's a fifth starter at best while Jeff Green is probably better suited as a sixth man. I think Russell Westbrook will establish him as the leader of this team this season and put to bed any questions about whether he is the point guard of the future. I'd like to see some more growth from Kevin Durant; he has the talent but I'm just not in love with him as a go-to guy. This is a team that is headed in the right direction but they still have a ways to go before they reach their destination.
24. LA Clippers: The Clippers have intriguing talent. They also have a coach who isn't the best at finding ways to get the most out of his intriguing talent. MIke Dunleavy has put together a team that doesn't fit Mike Dunleavy's coaching style. The Clippers could be a surprise team and put it all together but they probably should be happy if Baron Davis improves from last year and helps his trade value. Put a focused Baron Davis on Philly or even Indy and he'll help those teams win. I'm just not sure he'll be able to do that on Dunleavy's Clippers.
PLAYING OUT THE STRING
23. Golden State Warriors: Anthony Randolph is the popular pick for Most Improved Player but I'm really not sure how much it is going to help the Warriors. The rudder of this ship is still Monta Ellis and if he can't hold down the point guard, these guys aren't going anywhere. I'm not sold on Stephen Curry and most of the team just seems soft. I almost had these guys as a wild card but I don't think that Don Nelson's run-and-gun style is going to help this team get where it needs to be.
24. NJ Nets: I still can't believe how little they got for Vince Carter but, even still, they have some nice talent that seems to complement each another nicely. I like the Devin Harris/Lee backcourt. Who knows how Terrence Williams will pan out but I think he, Bobby Simmons and Chris Douglas-Roberts (if he can get out of Lawrence Frank's doghouse) should handle the SF spot. Brook Lopez could be an All-Star center in the near future. Tony Battie isn't the ideal PF but he can handle minutes there and hopefully Yi Jianlian will be able to at least prove to be an NBA backup. With their talent and future cap space, they are in the best position of any of the bad teams but alas they still are a pretty bad team.
25. Houston Rockets: The Rockets have lost their best two players but they should be a scrappy squad that outworks a lot of their opponents. I don't think they'll be able to really put together enough wins to make the playoffs but they will make everyone they play earn a victory.
26. Milwaukee Bucks: Keeping Ramon Sessions should help matters but this still seems like a team that doesn't know where it's going. Michael Redd gets his points but he shouldn't be the #1 guy on an NBA team. He might not even be the #2 guy anymore. Andrew Bogut isn't ever going to be a go-to guy and their options at PF are Kurt Thomas, Hakim Warrick, Joe Alexander, and Walter Sharpe. Still, there are some things to watch, namely the maturation of Brandon Jennings and the prospects of Ersan Ilyasova, Jodie Meeks, and Roko Ukic. If this team comes close to the playoffs, Scott Skiles should get Coach of the Year consideration.
27. Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies have an interesting backcourt with Conley, Mayo, and Gay and they could carry the team to some wins but other than that, the pickings are a bit slim. Zach Randolph simply shouldn't start for this squad. He can be a nice guy for the second unit. Darrell Arthur is probably a better fit alongside Marc Gasol. To me, a successful season for Hasheem Thabeet would be if he doesn't get posterized 10 times. The talent here is TERRIBLE but it's not that good and I don't care if these guys are professional, if you play in front of 7000 fans every night, it's going to effect your level of play.
28. NY Knicks: One more year and the 2010 Sweepstakes will finally be here. Unfortunately, I don't think that the Knicks have enough talent on their roster to lure key free agents players to New York. Wilson Chandler is one of the more underrated players in the NBA but the rest of the team is just kind of a mish-mash of players who they took on in order to dump contracts. I don't even think the addition of Ramon Sessions would make much of a difference. On the bright side, the Knicks are probably better off losing because their best chance of adding a second elite free agent is by paring a high lotto pick with Eddy Curry's expiring deal in a sign-and-trade.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: They have a rookie backcourt and their best player is coming off an injury as is their likely starting small forward. The Wolves have some nice pieces but they are expecting a lot from Jonny Flynn this year and even if he excels, they're relying on a lot of fringe players to make key contributions. Kurt Rambis has his work cut out for him.
30. Sacramento Kings: When the Kings drafted Tyreke Evans, they had to know that they were committing to building around him. He's a supremely talented player who has a lot of flaws and isn't someone you can just throw into any roster and expect success. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 but John Salmons would be a much better two guard to complement Evans than Kevin Martin. As for the frontcourt, the players aren't bad but they aren't very good and I'm not sure that they are going to get any better. Even worse, with the way that Geoff Petrie's been drafting these last five years, I wouldn't be too excited about the prospects of another lottery pick.