It looks like same-o-same-o Eastern Conference teams at the top of the heap this season: Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington. But, as these four teams were set in stone last season, this season there might be a few surprises. A number of teams that were down last year have improved their lineups.
Let's go through the East, team by team, starting with my number one pick, second, and so forth.
Cleveland is numero uno, hands down. Too many solid players at each position, especially when Kyrie Irving returns. The Mo Wiliams pickup and the return of a healthy Anderson Varejao bolster an already deep bench. Kevin Love is back. And, although he is not a defensive whiz, Love is a spectacular offensive and defensive rebounder and deep shooter, stretching the floor so LeBron can drive the paint whenever he feels like it. Mosgov can handle the bigs and Thompson can fill in in the paint if the Cavs have to go small and be the power forward when the team wants to go big. Dellavedova (Saint Mary's College star. Go Gaels) can provide defensive harassment and very astute ball distribution. Shumpert, JR Smith and a revitalized Richard Jefferson provide lots of firepower from the perimeter. So, tell me what the Cavs are missing? I can't see any team in the East beating the Cavs as long as they stay healthy, which is a slight worry as LeBron seems to be having back issues. I've suffered through back pain when I played, and it can definitely slow you down As James goes, so go the Cavs.
I like Chicago next. I like them a lot. Their two young players, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, have matured and are ready to provide additional offense. McDermott is earning his nickname, McBucket. Rose is back. Cross your fingers it stays that way. Also, Rose appears to be playing with a great deal more control. He's pacing himself like he's never done before. Not trying to do everything himself. Jimmy Butler is a solid point producer, in my mind a little like Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs. Aron Brooks in his third incarnation is a dependable point guard backup who shows flashes of brilliance and can provide points in a hurry. Kirk Hinrich adds perimeter defensive toughness. Taj Gibson is an underrated power forward. Noah and Gasul sew up the paint. These are two very long presences for drivers to deal with. Both are damn good shot blockers. When he gets back, Donleavy will help stretch the floor. By the end of the season, I predict Bobby Portis will contribute to the success of the team. Love his intensity. And I shouldn't forget Tony Snell, another of the Bulls' young players who appears to be maturing at the right time. New coach, new dynamic, new approach to the game could turn into a problem, or it could be a plus. Do all the pieces fit? What about playing time? If the coaching staff can get everybody on the proverbial same page, the Bulls could upset the Cavs. It wouldn't hurt my feelings. Sorry Delly.
The Atlanta Hawks are my pick for third. Their system best fits their personnel. They lost Carrol to Toronto, but acquired Tiago Splitter to help when the team is faced with Bigs, like Mosgov of the Cavs. Sefolosha is back healthy to provide defense and take the sting out of losing Carrol.Teague and Schroder in the backcourt will give teams fits. Korver will stretch the floor as he's always done. Lots of undersized toughness in the paint with Horford and Milsap. Bazemore looks like he's coming into his own, although I worry about consistency with him. Hardaway needs to get in touch with his defensive self. Once he does, he'll be an offensive asset. The players will move, pass, and cut. Looks like a lot of togetherness and a chip on their shoulders from last season's playoff losses. This team, baring injuries, looks like it can stay consistent and wind up with home court advantage. I don't think they'll drop the ball this time around.
The Toronto Raptors fall into the fourth spot, but might, not likely, but might edge out the Hawks as my third best team. The addition of DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and an under appreciated Louis Scola have been strong additions to make up for the loss of Lou Williams (Sorry, can't call you Sweet Lou as there was only one Sweet Lou, Lou Hudson) and Amir Johnson. The problem with this team, like the Wizards, is they are dependent too much on their backcourt. It also bothers me that Valancunas doesn't seem to have developed much as a player. He is what he is, not what he could be. I find this to be true for a lot of players in the NBA; they make it, then they don't attempt to improve themselves, learn new moves, improve on the ones they have. Can you imagine how devastating DeAndre Jordan would be if he had a jump hook.
The Washington Wizards rely too much on their backcourt duo, Wall and Beale. I pick them fourth in a tie with Toronto. Both teams could be upended by a couple of Eastern Conference teams that have improved their rosters, like Orlando, Boston or the Heat. As long as Beale and Wall are healthy and aggresive, the Whiz will be a Whiz, but any extended loss of either of the two would be catastrophic.The team has paint presence in Gortat. I think they have a problem on the wings. Porter is a good player, but I can't get excited about his game. Humphries will give his all and is tough defensively, but not much on offense. Nene's game doesn't do anything for me and he's always injured. This team has bench problems, and you know how important I feel a strong bench is to the success of a team.
At this point, the rest of the teams to fill out the playoff positions is very much a toss up in my opinion.
The Boston Celtic are playing well under Brad Stevens. They've added Amir Johonson and David Lee. Both should help provide more muscle on the defensive and offensive boards. Zeller and Sullinger are a good combo in the paint and adequate scorers and protectors. Crowder is the hustle guy every playoff team must have. Olynyk can spread the floor. They have a three guard rotation in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Isiah Thomas, who never saw shoot he didn't like. I've never been an Evan Turner fan, but Coach Stevens is getting max out of him. I've always thought of Jerbko as soft. RJ Hunter could turn into a great 6th man coming off the bench shooting deep. Look for this team to compete for one of the last spots in the playoffs. There a lot to say for coach and players being on the same page.
Detroit is an improved team but still questionable defensively. Andre Drummond is looking to rival Wilt Chamberlain's rebounding stats, but possesses very little offensive skils. Reggie Jackson is becoming a powerful scoring threat, a mini Russell Westbrook.They added Marcus Morris. And Ersan Ilyasova. Caldwell Pope hasn't proved he can shoot consistently, but he is active and can run the floor. When will Brandon Jennings return, and will be be able to coexist with Jachson? Big Question mark. The little rat Steve Blake will help coming off the bench, always has, always will. I see Steve being a coach one of these days and I wouldn't want to be one of his players if he screws up. Problem with this Pistons for me is I don't see a lot of joy. They sort of take on the personality of their coach, grumpy and dark. If you can't have fun competing, it's tough to sustain enthusiasm for an 84 game schedule.
The Miami Heat have five solid players, an aging superstar in Dwanye Wade, a more than aging Luol Deng, Cris Bosh, in comeback mode, Hassan Whiteside (turning into a consistent shot blocker) and niffty and speedy point guard in Goran Dragjic. The trade for Beno Udrih puts two Slovenians (rumor has it they don't like each other, something to do with the Slovenian Olympic team) on the same team. Talented rookie in Justise Winslow. He will figure out the game and be a factor by the end of the season. Gerald Green looks to be a head case. Dump him. As Pop says, no headcases and mothers' boys. Udonis Haslim will always be a solid pro, but he's long in the tooth. Can't say I have much faith in the rest of the bench. The Birdman will fly, but to what end? You can't win with four or five guys, no matter how good they are. Time for Dwayne and Udonis to join Pat in the front office.
Orlando Magic. Still a year away, but maybe they could sneak in with lots of youth and enthusiasm. Strong young backcourt threesome: At the two, Oladipo with Fournier coming off the bench and at the point Elfrid Payton with Shabass Napier to relieve. Vucevic is a seven footer who can score. Needs to shore up his D. I've always like Tobias Harris, a stretch forward. This years draft choice, Mario Hezonja, has to produce consistently. Aaron Gordon is long and active and developing. The Magic are my surprise team, as in surprise any team that take them too lightly.
Indiana Pacers. I don't want to discount the Pacers. Paul George is back and starting to regain his All Star form. But I just don't see much bench strength at all. I love Monta Ellis, but he's all instinct and no smarts. His defensive skills are marginal. Talk about marginal defense, there's Budinger. If either Hill or George go down for any time, the Pacers can forget the season. Time to rebuild for next year. Miles Turner may turn into a player, but can he be a factor this year? He'll be one of Larry Bird's rebuilding blocks. The Pacers is one of those teams that, aside from Hill and George, and the potential of Turner, are filled with second tier type players. You watch them play and after awhile your eyes glaze over.
The Milwaukee Bucks: A surprise team last year are no long a surprise. That's probably why they are not winning early. They'll get it together, or we'll discover Jason Kidd is not the coach everyone was Oohing and Ahhing about last season. What do I think? I'll let the tone of the previous sentence talk for me. So, on with the team. The addition of Monroe provides paint offense, but not so much defense. Jabari Parker is back and getting into his rookie year, which is what this year is for him. So expect a learning cure. Antetokounmp is an all around stud, plays both ends hard and is the soul of this team. Middleton and Henson are talented players. O.J. runs to hot and cold for my liking. Grievis Vasquez could start a camp to teach kids what it takes to be a backup guard. Has he ever not produced and been an asset? No siree. Big heart and tough hombre. Bayless is adequate. That leaves Michael Carter-Williams under the microscope. He is a conundrum. He can run, pass, get into the paint and score, but he doesn't quite do the job of a true point guard. I would love to see the Buck make it because I've always thought of Milwaukee as an underdog city, and you have to cheer for the underdog, don't you?
I don't mean to place the Charlotte Hornets toward the bottom because that's where I think they'll wind up. On the contrary, I have some real hope for this team in the future. However, I'm not sure the future is this season. Still some acquisitions over the summer have been paying off. What I like about the way the team is that it can go small and big. Al Jefferson has always been a consistent productive center. He's got a lovely touch. Nick Batum has come out of his recent Portland ho-hum play and is starting to produce the way he did early in his career. Jeremy Lin pushes the ball and is getting to be an excellent distributor. I think Frank Kaminsky will eventually be an NBA super star. And how about Jeremy Lamb finally beginning to reach his potential.
What about the NY Knicks? To say they're a better team, one must ask compared to what. Anything is better than what they were last year. Carmelo back healthy is a plus, although I've never been a Carmelo fan. Too much of a face-up ball stopper for my liking. Can't keep juking with the rest of the team watching. (Sly half rhyme, huh?) Great and I mean great draft choice, Kristaps Porzingis is the next Dirk Novitski. Robin Lopez is huge in the paint. Interesting how he has become a much more sought after player than his brother Brook. Irony? At all positions, the Knicks helped themselves. I'm a big fan of Jose Calderon at the point. He is a leader and distributor. Aron Afflolo can create points of the bounce and is a strong defender. I'm pretty sure this is not going to be the final incarnation of a revitalized Knicks, but it's going a long way in the direction of a playoff spot. Charles Barkely has predicted the Knicks will make the playoffs this year. As open as the opportunities are in the East, I wouldn't bet against him.
Oh, man, what can I say about the Brooklyn Nets. Come on, Lionel, get it together. Remember what your team was like in Portland when you won the championship- the hustle, the D, the passing, the cutting. There are only two players on the Nets that interest me and they are Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young. Brook Lopez provides offense, yes, but doesn't come close to his brother's meanness on defense. Let's face it, Brooks is a seven foot woosy. Plus he's always hurt. Jarrett Jack is a quintessential backup guard playing in the number one spot. That's a loser. Joe Johnson can score, yes, but he is a serious liability on defense. Nets' Russian owner has huge bucks, unless Putin says otherwise. He should eat part of Johnson's contract and make him more tradeable. Last but not least, any team with Andrea Barganani on it will not strike fear into the heart of an opponent. Like the Lakers, this year might be the year to change the team's GM.
Philadelphia 76ers. Whatever your strategy is, it ain't working. See Lakers and Nets' suggestion about a change of GMs. A new vision is definitely in order before you screw up two wonderful first round draft choices.
Another haiku from my upcoming collections of short poems about sports
There's a fist in us
Before the first whistle blows
Before the first elbow
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.