nba haves and have-nots

well, with many of the big name free-agents having made verbal committments to teams, the view of the coming NBA season is beginning to take shape.  and it should be interesting and, if you’re a fan of one of the privileged few teams with a shot, a lot of fun.

the biggest trend is the divergence between the fortunes of teams that can realistically compete for a championship, and those with – let’s be frank – no hope.  what we’ve seen is no-hope teams letting great players go to top teams, trying to cut costs while they lick their wounds.  some of them may be planning to try to come back in one or more years, but most don’t look like they have much hope…

why?

because the best players out there are willing to play for the mid-level exception on teams with a realistic shot to win the title.

and that’s a short list: l.a., boston, cleveland seem like real threats, with outside shots in orlando and san antonio…with the recently reported signing of hedo turkoglu, pencil portland in as a dark horse, though realistically it seems like it will take them a couple of years to advance to the top tier, all that talent notwithstanding.

at the top of the list, there’s the lakers.  they’re going to have such an overwhelming talent advantage.  ron artest gives them something they’ve lacked for a long time: an imposing physical presence on defense.  while you might get some argument from gerald wallace’s ribs and lungs, there was not much in the middle for l.a. that made teams feel like they really didn’t want to wander into the paint.  unlike boston, who have two or more bodies converging, and usually making contact, with anyone who tries to get to the rim, the lakers frontline would frequently move out of the way when someone went hard to the rim.  that’s probably because guys didn’t want to foul out.  as the aforementioned gerald wallace learned, andrew bynum was willing to play that role, but too often in important games he couldn’t manage to stay on the floor long enough to make a difference.  odds are the young man, who seems smart and motivated, with a pleasant streak of nasty in his game, will learn quickly, and will improve.  but all that notwithstanding, in ron artest, the lakers now have a guy who will take it real personal if opposing teams are getting an easy path to the rim.  more importantly, they have a guy who can match lebron james and paul pierce physically at the 3.  trevor ariza is a quick, smart and committed defender, but he’s not going to wear out the tough 3’s in the league…he’ll stay with them, but he won’t beat them down.  artest will beat them down.  i’ll never forget watching him playing for sacto against a lakers team that had more talent but got pushed around nonetheless by the boys from the california capitol.

and i suppose it has escaped no one that in kobe, lamar (assuming they resign him) and artest coach phil jackson has a trio eerily reminiscent of jordan, pippen and rodman…but jordan pippen and rodman never had the likes of a pau gasol and andrew bynum to go with them.  if phil’s health holds up and if everyone stays a) professional and b) healthy, this could get ugly for the rest of the league.

meanwhile, the other cream of the nba crop all added key personnel, even if it doesn’t look like any of it will be enough to keep up with what l.a. has done.  jefferson in san antonio gives that team needed athleticism, without sacrificing the discipline that is its hallmark.  vince carter adds explosiveness to orlando and makes their starting five one of the best in the league…only problem there is, after you get past their big 4 of nelson, howard, lewis, and vince, the cupboard starts to look a little too bare…the departure of four guys who played important roles in the playoffs – turkoglu, courtney lee, marcin gortat, and rafer alston – is going to take a toll at some point, even if they get nelson back at full strength for the year.

as for boston, a lot hinges on the big ticket.  if he can bounce back physically (and if espn’s bill simmons can be proven wrong in his theory that garnett’s physical breakdown may at this point be irreversible) and if the lizards can convince rasheed to join them, they’ll look like a beast.  hard to see anyone doing much in the paint against that squad.  i’m among those who think that if garnett had been healthy we would have seen a repeat of lakers-celts in the finals, and at least right now, don’t see any reason why it won’t happen next year if the C’s stay healthy (big if).  they just have more experience, defensive toughness, savvy and composure than any of their rivals.  and they look to be deeper too.

meanwhile up in cleveland, lebron’s got some needed help, experience and physicality in the middle in his new big caddy: shaq (wish i could get royalties for coining the big caddy: shaq, but the big man has the right to his own name and nicknames).  but the upgrades in the other top teams will be too much for the land of cleve unless the cavs can pull a tall (preferably quick) lanky defender who can get his own shot.  there were/are a number of such guys in this year’s free agent crop – turkoglu, ariza, artest, odom – but the first three are all spoken for already and it’ll be a shock if the fourth, odom, doesn’t re-sign with the lakers.  the situation makes me think that lebron’s going to have to wait a few years to get his ring, and maybe even to get to the finals again.  here’s hoping he doesn’t sustain the kind of psychic damage that jerry west did, running year after year into the brick wall that was russell’s band of leprechauns.  lebron’s physical advantage is so great that you have to give cleveland a punchers chance, especially if they can get the top seed in the east and only have to play orlando *or* boston and not both in the playoffs.  still, i think the cavs have to rate behind boston, and maybe neck and neck with orlando in the eastern sweepstakes.  of course, if garnett turns out to be as fragile next year as he was this year, then give cleveland much better than a puncher’s chance…in the conference finals…lord help them against the stacked lakers.

the most intriguing move and the most intriguing non-move (so far) come from two western conference bridesmaids: portland and denver, respectively.

portland seems to have gotten exactly what it needed in turkoglu: an experienced guy who can take some of the ball-handling load off of brandon roy, who can get the ball anywhere on the floor and be a threat with it, who can get his own shot or make the right pass (especially over the defense), who will create match-up problems for most teams, especially when lamarcus aldridge is on the floor at the same time and most importantly, should be a great fit in terms of temperament on a team of guys who are proud and talented but not boastful.   and man, what  a deep, varied, and athletic bunch they are.  i think they’ll be one of the most fun teams to watch next year.

despite all that though, portland is a team that may need a year or two to work out how to beat the lakers in a conference finals, assuming they get that far.  and san antonio and denver are likely to have something to say about that.

denver however, may have taken a big step back, simply by having failed to take a step forward.  their big advantages this year were physical dominance and a newly poised offensive approach thanks to chauncey billups.  but the problem with billups, as started to become evident in the playoffs even though it was disguised to a degree by denver’s overall approach, is that his experience and ability can’t make up for the loss in phyical potency that inevitably comes with age.  it reminds me a little of rick “big daddy” reuschel when he took the giants to the ’89 world series.  an experienced guy who could dominate games against good teams, but struggled against great hitters and great teams, simply because he didn’t have the ability, at 40, to overpower the juiced up mark mcgwires and jose cansecos of the world.  basically, he couldn’t mix in a slowing fastball with his other stuff against those guys, and so ultimately couldn’t threaten them.

to me, that’s where chauncey is now.  he’s the perfect fit for a group of mostly young, strong but less than disciplined guys, but at crunch time, particularly against teams with quick guards, he may be at a bigger and bigger disadvantage.  in fact, l.a. is probably the nuggets best matchup because they have a guy at that position in derek fisher who’s not going to be able to outquick or outmuscle chauncey.  but with artest now in the mix, denver’s ability to physically dominate the rest of the floor against l.a. is substantially diminished.  and artest is going to match up very well against carmelo…in fact, it’ll be interesting to see if carmelo can maintain his poise against artest  in a hotly contested series against l.a., if it comes to that.

but, getting back to chauncey, it’s hard to see how he’ll stand up well against improved portland or san antonio squads, both of which have quicks at the 1.  we’ll see.

after the top six: l.a., boston, cleveland, orlando, san antonio, and portland, things start to look grim around the league.  one interesting stat will be teams’ combined record against the top six.  i may need to keep track of that next year…i’ll be impressed if any team not in that group can do better than .400 against it.  denver has the best chance of coming close, and given the number of teams in the league, the probability of one unexpected team fluking into a good record against them may be better than 50:50, but i kind of doubt it.

for the rest of the league, it’s hard to know how they’re going to keep their fans motivated to keep coming to games, other than to see the home boys try to put up against a fight against top six teams.

new york under d’antoni will undoubtedly be fun to watch because of the style.  ditto golden state (who, parenthetically, i think will be a lot *less* fun if they land amare stoudemire because i think his attitude will poison the team…the man should have a stronger sense of hunger and committment, as opposed to the idea he seems to drag around that he’s already arrived somewhere) .  and dallas fans are so in love with their team that they’ll show up and fantasize that they’ve got some kind of chance when the reality is that they’re going to be well-coached also-rans.  nuggets fans will have a chance every night but are likely to end up on the short end against the good teams, as already mentioned.  jazz fans will get what they’ve always gotten, well-prepared tenacious teams that will do well but won’t be able to get over the hump, and they’ll probably accept that.   in oklahoma city, they’ll root for the young guys and won’t worry much about today, thinking instead about someday a couple of years down the line.  one team that should be fascinating to watch is the charlotte bobcats, particularly if they get ai.  brown is the kind of coach who can get his team to play a sticky kind of game that will make it tough even on the best teams, and he may just have the talent to make it work this year.  in fact, if i had to pick a darkhorse candidate for the eastern conf semis next year, it’d be the bobcats.

but in atlanta, philly, chicago, phoenix, houston, new jersey, miami, new orleans, detroit, indiana…what’s there to look forward to? mediocrity or worse, and years of treading water (ok, in dwayne wade miami gets to watch something much better than mediocrity, but it says here there is no way miami can reach the conference finals, and serious doubts about the semis).   and don’t even get me started on toronto, milwaukee, the cloppers, the twolves and the rest of the scroungers making up the bottom rung.

nope, it’s going to be a long year watching top teams overwhelm everyone else, wondering who might be able to slip into the conference semi’s in the east and, if denver falters, in the west.  but once the conference semi’s start, well, now that’ll be interesting.

but already i think the default scenario for the 2009-2010 season is:

lakers (champs)

boston (eastern conf champs)

cleveland (eastern conf runner up)

orlando (eastern conf semis)

charlotte (? eastern conf semis)

san antonio (western conf runners-up)

portland (pushing san antonio to seven in conf semis?)

denver (western conf semis)

obviously, injuries or huge trades could change the situation, but for right now, i’ll start there.

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