DETROIT: (1st in Central, 1st in East, 1st in NBA)
The best team in basketball got better because they’re part of the best organization in the game. Barring injury, they’ll be judged in June as to whether or not they improved more than the Spurs did.
Carlos Delfino solidifies their perimeter rotation and whatever combination of Antonio McDyess, Elden Campbell, Derrick Coleman, and Darko Milicic proves both healthy and useful will create the deepest frontcourt in the league. Suffice to say, the best basketball coach in the world will figure it out, and if no solution presents itself, the best GM in the game (non-logo division) will provide him with new options.
INDIANA: (2nd in Central, 2nd in East, 4th in NBA)
Despite their talent making them the clear second-best team in the East, I think there’s almost no chance the Pacers, despite winning the Central by seven games last year, can better the Pistons over 82 games this year. A seven-game series could be a different matter, especially considering the potential roster changes. The better Stephen Jackson and Jonathan Bender play (and, to a lesser extent, Austin Croshere and Fred Jones) the easier it will be to trade Ron Artest. It’s easy to imagine circumstances that would prompt the Pacers to deal him and difficult to imagine those which would prevent suitors from taking a chance on him. I put the odds of Artest appearing on Indiana's post-season at 60-40 for.
Pre-season injuries to Anthony Johnson and Jeff Foster will strain the team’s depth. A healthy Scot Pollard will fill in adequately, but may force Jermaine O’Neal into significant, fatiguing minutes at center. Johnson’s injury should let Fred Jones on the court more but as much as I like his game, he may not be suited for extended minutes at the point and Jamaal Tinsley’s erratic play can force Rick Carlisle into using his backup point guard in key moments.
CLEVELAND: (3rd in Central, 4th in East, 12th in NBA)
The only real sleeper team in the East, the Cavs have the potential to surpass the Heat as the conference’s third-best team.
LeBron James has given the organization that opportunity and they are moving quickly to allow him to fulfill his promise. Because James is uniquely talented for such a young player, Jim Paxson has had to accelerate the rebuilding process. Losing Carlos Boozer and Eric Williams could have been damaging. But Paxson replaced them with viable alternatives (Drew Gooden and Eric Snow) for little cost, allowing him to assemble veteran depth (Lucious Harris, Tractor Traylor, and Scott Williams) and youthful potential (Luke Jackson, Anderson Varejao, and Aleksandar Pavlovic) as insurance should one or both fail to be a solution.
Gooden has had a great pre-season and should be a good NBA player. But he has struggled to be an average NBA player (save the ’03 play-off series against the Pistons) thus far. If Paul Silas can consistently get Gooden to rebound hard, he’ll be a serviceable replacement for Boozer. If the rest of his talents flourish, he’ll be better than Boozer.
Jackson, Varejao, and Pavlovic could form an exciting second unit as early as next season. They’ll have to earn time from the veterans this campaign and Jackson and Pavlovic may have to be patient if Paxson and Silas attempt to showcase Dajuan Wagner off the bench in an attempt to boost his trade value. If Wagner misses much time at the start of the year due to his sprained ankle, the other young guards, given a chance, may relegate him to the bench.
CHICAGO: (4th in Central, 11thin East, 25th in NBA)
If Eddy Curry learns to rebound and Tyson Chandler stays relatively healthy, the Bulls young perimeter talent and decent veteran role players could sneak enough wins against disinterested opposition to contend for a playoff spot. Not much of a best case scenario even before contemplating that it hinges on contributions from Curry and Chandler.
Jerry Krause took a gamble three years ago, foreswearing a frontcourt of Artest, Elton Brand, and Brad Miller for Jalen Rose, Chandler, and Curry. It seemed like an odd gamble at the time and it hasn’t worked out very well thus far. Entering the home stretch of their rookie deals, Curry and Chandler should realize the precariousness of their situation. Continued lackluster efforts will consign them to Joe Smith, Samaki Walker, or Lorenzen Wright’s career. Should they improve this year, they could both sign big deals and form an interesting young team alongside the fruits of their struggles (Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, and Andres Nocioni).
Hinrich will be an All-Star within a couple of years. Deng will become, at the very least, a solid starter with an upside near Richard Jefferson and Shawn Marion. Ben Gordon might take longer to develop and Nocioni could be a suitable replacement for Artest, more crazy intense than crazy crazy.
MILWAUKEE: (5th in Central, 13th in East, 27th in NBA)
TJ Ford was never going to be difference maker in the NBA, but he seemed destined to have Avery Johnson’s career with a longer peak. If you accept his limitations, he’s a useful player and fun to watch. I hope we get to watch him again soon.
The Bucks have acquired two decent backup point guards to replace Ford. If Mike James and Mo Williams could platoon defensive and offensive responsibilities they might surpass Ford’s production. But basketball doesn’t work that way. Nor does it allow for a very good way to play Michael Redd, Desmond Mason, and Keith Van Horn at the same time which is unfortunate because they are the Bucks three best players.
I presume the Bucks will go small with Van Horn and Kukoc getting a lot of time at power forward with Joe Smith sliding to center when appropriate. They need Van Horn or Kukoc on the floor at all times to spread the floor for Redd and Mason. They have no other shooters. I don’t envision many transition buckets for this team as it’s tough to see how they’ll stop the opposition from scoring. The organization is high on Zaza Pachulia (you would be too if Dan Gadzuric and Daniel Sanitago were your alternatives) but that is due entirely to his offensive game.
Unfortunately Bucks fans can't even cling to Chicago’s faint hopes. I can’t envision a scenario leading to a successful season in Milwaukee.