Mid-Season Eastern Conference Roundup
Well, we are now halfway through the 2009/10 season (ok, so we’re two games short of 41; it’s MLK Day and I’m free to do what I want). The Heat, for better or worse, have pretty much lived up to their billing. They stand at one game better than .500, at 20-19, good for 5th in the Eastern Conference… but not by much.
Here’s a brief team-by-team look at the rest of the conference.
After struggling out of the gates, the Cavaliers currently hold the best record in the Eastern Conference at 31-11, just one game back of the Lakers for best record in the league. Lebron James is having another MVP season. He is shooting a career high 51% from the floor. His Hollinger PER, 31.3, is approaching last season’s record total. And with free agent signing Leon Powe set to return before the All Star break, their depth is set to improve.
But James believes his team was playing better last season. The team is currently 3 games behind last season’s pace. Adjusting to the addition of Shaquille O’Neal, who is averaging 22.5 minutes per game starting in place of fan favorite Zydrunas Ilgauskas, has been a challenge. James had this to say:
Right now we’re playing at an OK level, we’re not playing as well as we did last year but we can be better than that team. But we had to go through some bumps coming out of the blocks and we’ve done a great job of playing consistent basketball.
The Celtics bowed out of the playoffs early (for them, anyway; it’s all relative) last season after their star player and emotional leader, Kevin Garnett, suffered a knee injury. With key offseason acquisitions Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to improve the team’s depth, the Celtics started off strong at 6-0. But sure enough for this aging team, each of the players mentioned above (throw in Paul Pierce for good measure) has missed games due to injury this season.
What has it meant for the Celtics? Nothing. Despite a horrendous stretch of injuries, the Celtics are 27-11 and sit a mere 2 games behind the Cavs for the top spot in the East. And things should get better from here. Garnet and Wallace are set to return shortly, leaving only Daniels still on the shelf. He is hoping for a mid February return.
With the Magic struggling, the Hawks have quietly grabbed the 3rd spot in the East, amassing a 26-13 record. Yes, Joe Johnson is playing well (though he is not, in my humble opinion, a max contract player). Yes, Al Horford has been solid (shooting a whopping 59% from the floor and logging nightly double-doubles). But the biggest bright spot is the rejuvenated play of PF Josh Smith. After taking 448 3-ptrs in the past 4 seasons (converting 27%), he has shot just 3 this season. He is shooting 51% from the floor, with 15 pts, 8 rebs, 4 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals per game.
Questions started to surface with a 4 game losing streak last week. But this is still a very good and very dangerous team. They are vying to be considered a part of the East’s elite. Do they have enough to be true title contenders? To this casual observer, they seem very solid but unspectacular at every position. I just don’t see it. But man would I like to have Jamaal Crawford (not his contract).
When the Orlando Magic, worried that signing the free agent forward would handcuff the team with the luxury tax for several years, let fan favorite and fourth quarter go-to guy Hedo Turkoglu go during the offseason in favor of guard Vince Carter, fan reaction was split (Turkoglu went on to receive a five-year, $50 million deal with the Raptors; Carter has $16 million and $18 million remaining on the final two guaranteed seasons of his contract). Halfway through the season, the Magic are struggling through integration issues. Through 41 games, the Magic are 26-14, 6 games behind last season’s pace. Both Dwight Howard’s (3.8 pts, 0.8 rebs) and Rashard Lewis’ (3.4 pts, 1.1 rebs) numbers are down this season. Lewis acknowledges that the swap is affecting his game. A bad decision by Otis Smith? Time will tell.
After a multitude of contract extensions and free agent signings, the Raptors seem to have found their groove. Winners of 7 of their last 10 games, they now stand mere percentage points behind the Heat for 5th place in the Eastern Conference. Surprisingly, this may actually be a good thing for the Heat. If Toronto makes the playoffs, Miami would be in line to receive the Raptors’ 1st round pick in the upcoming draft. As for Chris Bosh, despite the success he undoubtedly realizes the Raptors do not have what it takes to contend for an NBA title. Bryan Colangelo has vowed not to trade the All Star PF unless he communicates his intention to leave in free agency. On a side note, Bosh had this to say about signing a free agent contract for less than the max:
That’s a good question. I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know about Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. I really don’t know. Like I said, it’s a business, so that would be tough to do. You’d really have to make a big commitment to do that.
The most successful Eastern Conference team nobody knows about is the Charlotte Bobcats. Yes, Charlotte! They have quietly run their record to 19-19, and stand in 7th place in the Eastern Conference (just 1/2 game back of the Heat for 5th). The Bobcats have gone 16-10 after a 3-9 start, and they have the NBA’s 5th best home record, at 16-4. Hollinger has them 9th in his Power Rankings (the Heat are 20) and projects they will take the 5th spot in the conference at season’s end. How are they doing it? Jackson has been a sparkplug for the Bobcats since his November trade to Charlotte. Gerald Wallace has upped his play, averaging 4 more rebounds than ever before in his career. But in one word, defense.
So who’s most worried about their vast improvement? The Houston Texans. They’ll be the only franchise in North America’s 4 major sports leagues that hasn’t ever made the playoffs if the Bobcats keeps clicking.
After blowing a 35 point lead to the Kings in December (biggest in the NBA in 13 years), the Chicago Bulls have hit their stride. Winners of 4 in a row, they find themselves approaching .500 (18-20) with a stranglehold on the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Among those playing well, Derrick Rose. A few weeks back, we were all talking about how defenses have adjusted to his aggressive style and how he may not be the prototypical point guard. He is now averaging 19 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds on the season, with a Hollinger PER that has risen 1.2 points from his Rookie of the Year season to 17.2.
But the Bulls have even bigger plans. It has been reported they are looking to move Kirk Hinrich and Tim Thomas in an effort to sign two max free agents this offseason. That’s simply not possible, but one sure is and that is worrysome. Portland may have an interest in one or both, particularly if Andre Miller is on the move.
After shaking up the roster in the offseason, the Bucks have proven to be nothing but a tweener team of sorts… clearly not good enough to compete but on the verge of a playoff spot despite a sub-par 16-22 record. Brandon Jennings took the world by storm, scoring 55 points in a November 14 game against GSW and being named by many as a shoe-in for All Star. But he has struggled mightily since. The FG% trend is alarming: 52% in Oct, 42% in Nov, 38% in Dec and 28% in Jan. Sacramento PG Tyreke Evans has gladly taken over as the dominant candidate for that award. Andrew Bogut, finally healthy, is having his finest season in this his 4th year in the league).
Michael Redd, whose torn ACL will keep him out for the rest of the season, and his $17 million contract ($18 million next season), weighs this team down. While he recovers, the addition of Jerry Stackhouse should help.
On December 24, the following question was asked on ESPN.com: Which sophomore would you rather have, Michael Beasley or Danilo Gallinari? Abbot, Broussard, Ford, Hollinger and Sheridan all responded Beasley. It’s an interesting question I’ve often asked myself in the wake of the upcoming free agent frenzy. I know this is a wildly unpopular admission, but I choose Gallinari. He’s a sweet-shooting wing with a big 6’10″ frame and vastly under-appreciated play-making ability. With Gallinari and all that available cap space, the Knicks may have more to offer Lebron than people think.
As far as this season, there was a time the Knicks put forth a 12-6 run. But maybe I’m putting a positive spin on things for all my New York readers. The Knicks are not very good. New York’s record stands at 16-24. They are in desperate need of a point guard. Chris Duhon is not the answer, and Donnie Walsh is searching. But in the Eastern Conference, not very good may just be enough. They are just 3 games back in the race for a playoff birth.
The Detroit Pistons made one of the biggest free agent splashes of the offseason, signing Ben Gordon to a 5-year, $58 million contract and Charlie Villanueva to a 5-year, $38 million contract. How has it gone for them? Not good. The Pistons stand at 14-25, struggling through a 13-game losing streak before taking their last 3.
Will the Pistons consider breaking this team for the second time in 2 seasons? Joe Dumars is at least willing to listen to any opportunities, commenting:
We will not be averse to being active before the trading deadline.
Consider Tayshaun Prince on the trading block.
The Pacers are 5-4 since Danny Granger’s return from injury. And 2nd-year center Roy Hibbert has stepped up his game; when he can avoid his foul happy ways, he is a solid and reasonably productive player. But at 14-26, the Pacers are going nowhere fast.
Jeff Foster, a nightly double-double contributor and a long-range threat (40% for the PF’s career), is a hot commodity for Western Conference teams looking for a guy that can defend the likes of Pau Gasol come playoff time. With Andre Miller feuding with Nate McMillan and not quite fitting in with the Blazers on the court this season, could he be a fit in Indiana as part of a larger Foster trade? The Pacers, who have the 2nd fastest pace in the league, could be a home for Miller’s style. For now, this is all just speculation. One thing is clear: the Pacers have spent alot of money for little results.
And of course there is Gilbert Arenas. With the 2nd worst record in the Eastern Conference at 13-26 and a payroll that pushes them $9 million into the luxury tax, the last thing the Washington Wizards needed was further issues from their recently healthy superstar Gilbert Arenas. That’s exactly what they have. Arenas pled guilty on Friday to carrying a pistol without a license in the District of Columbia. But is it a blessing in disguise? With the Wizards desperate to cut payroll, this incident could present an opportunity for the Wizards to void the remaining $80 million on his contract. I’m not convincing they will (and if they do, I’m not convinced they will be successful in keeping it voided).
Could there be teams willing to trade for the indefinitely suspended but very talented point guard if he restructured his contract? Arenas reportedly has a close relationship with Otis Smith, and would love the opportunity to play for the Magic. Could he end up there? ESPN’s Marc Stein seems to think so. I have my doubts. Could the Knicks, in desperate need of a point guard, have an interest? ESPN’s Chris Sheridan seems to think so. I have my doubts.
The Sixers are shitty (which is no surprise), compiling a 13-26 record thus far. Elton Brand was supposed to be a difference-maker; he’s not even starting. About the biggest excitement in Philly these days is the acquisition of former 76er Allen Iverson in December. Surprisingly, Iverson has helped. The team is 8-12 since his signing (not spectacular… or even good for that better, but better), with Iverson averaging 15.3 points on 49.3% shooting in January. It doesn’t matter. Philadelphia is a non-factor in the East.
I’d be remiss not to mention Lou Williams’ solid play when healthy, though the PG’s minutes are falling because of defensive. Center Samuel Dalambert has expressed interest in playing elsewhere during his tenure with the Sixers. But he has a bloated contract ($11 million this year and $12 million next) the Heat – and everyone else – would not be interested in.
If the Sixers are shitty, what are the Nets? Historic. At 3-36, they are in danger of setting the all-time NBA mark for futility. The 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers from 1972-73 would be happy to relinquish the record. And the Nets are currently on pace to set the mark. In the midst of the disaster, the players are obviously all on edge about losing their jobs. Said Bobby Simmons:
We’re players, and we like consistency with our jobs. But overall, it’s out of our control. We all talk about it, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. Whatever management’s plan is, they’ll never tell us.
Added Tony Battie:
They’re gearing up to go after two max players, and nothing will stand in the way of that.
Point guard Devin Harris could be an attractive piece.