The NBA regular season is so close you can taste it, and basketball nuts all around the world, including yours truly, are gearing up for what promises to be a season full of interesting storylines and intriguing match-ups.
To signal the beginning of the 2014/15 NBA campaign, let’s take a look at my early playoff predictions for the Eastern Conference:
1. Chicago Bulls
Don’t worry, you’re not reading this wrong. I look at the Bulls and I see a team that has addressed its needs in the offseason without completely reshuffling its roster. Carlos Boozer was finally amnestied and Derrick Rose has looked pretty damn good this preseason. If you don’t believe me, watch his duel with Kyrie Irving in the preseason game against the Cavs.
The addition of Pau Gasol without losing Taj Gibson is what excites me most about these Bulls. Gibson was unlucky to miss out on Sixth Man of the Year last year and is a great reserve to have on any team – while Gasol adds championship-winning experience to the Bulls. So, their projected starting five is Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Gasol and Joakim Noah with Gibson as sixth man. I’m putting my money on the Bulls to shine this season under defensive specialist and bona fide hard-ass Tom Thibodeau. This could be the best chance for this team to win a ring since the number 23 was lighting it up in the 1990’s.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
I’ll be honest. I really didn’t see LeBron James completing the fairytale and taking his talents back home to Ohio. After four years in Miami and four NBA Finals appearances, two NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVPs and two more regular-season MVP awards, ‘King James’ feels it’s time to repay his hometown fans with the title the city of Cleveland is craving. No professional sports team from Cleveland has won a title since Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns won the NFL in 1964. That’s before the Super Bowl era!
With Kevin Love abandoning ship in Minnesota and Kyrie Irving signing a healthy contract extension worth $90 million over five years, the Cavs have built their own ‘Big Three’. A healthy Anderson Varejao will bring toughness and hustle to the starting line-up and the addition of championship-winning players Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones will give the younger Cavs veterans to look up to. Keep an eye out also for Ray Allen, as he is still contemplating his future and could join ex-Heat teammate LeBron in Cleveland.
I still don’t envisage Irving and Dion Waiters seeing eye-to-eye, so expect to see Waiters perhaps being moved on at some stage this season.
3. Washington Wizards
Talk about a surprise packet – the Wizards were awesome to watch last season. The backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal lit it up and the front line of Nene and Marcin Gortat were animals inside the paint. Beal will miss roughly the first six weeks of the season through injury, but this gives Summer League MVP Glen Rice Jr. and sophomore Otto Porter Jr. a chance to prove themselves with more minutes. The addition of wise man Andre Miller will also help Wall build upon his improvements from last season.
Although the Wizards lost Trevor Ariza to the Rockets, they gained a leader in Paul Pierce. Pierce knows his role will be to provide glimpses of his former self in the clutch and leadership to the younger Wizards. He’ll also provide a toughness that was clearly visible in his little preseason scuffle with Joakim Noah. If that’s a preview of things to come for the regular season, I can’t wait to see the two clubs go at it again – and I certainly can’t wait to see what the Wizards have in store for us.
4. Toronto Raptors
Another young and surprising team from last season, the Raptors will be looking to build on their fantastic 2013/14 campaign. The team was one play away from the second round of the playoffs last year. Having re-signed guard Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are in prime position to make some noise in the East.
With athletic wings DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross improving their play last season, the Raptors could again be a formidable opponent. Jonas Valanciunas could be the key to gauging just how good the Raptors can be. The Lithuanian big man increased his scoring and rebounding in his sophomore year and played in all but one regular season game. Depth is also present on the bench as Toronto retained Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez in the squad. Both are starting-calibre players who will provide great minutes off the bench.
5. Charlotte Hornets
The artists formerly known as the Hornets, who changed their name to the Bobcats and then changed their name back to the Hornets, showed a great increase in competitiveness last year. They snuck into the East’s eighth seed and narrowly missed out on having an All-Star in Al Jefferson. Big Al was putting up some numbers last year, averaging 20 points per game and 10 rebounds per game for the first time since 2008/09, when he was at Minnesota. He also shot 50 per cent from the field for the first time since 2007/08.
The Hornets acquired one of the best agitators in the league (just ask LeBron James’ left ear) in Lance Stephenson during the offseason. Stephenson, who led the league in triple-doubles last season, will be looking to make an immediate impact as a Hornet. With Stephenson and Kemba Walker in the backcourt and Jefferson in the post, the Hornets have a serious chance of climbing up the ladder in the weaker of the two conferences.
Ok, one more thing on Big Al. His first name is…Albus. That’s right, Albus. If finding this out brought you as much joy as it did me, you’ll be having a very good day.
6. Miami Heat
My, oh my, what a difference four months can make. In June, the Heat were fighting for a title in their fourth straight Finals appearance. Now the Heat are without arguably the best small forward in history (I said ARGUABLY) and are moving on to the next chapter for the franchise. Chris Bosh signed a max deal, while Dwyane Wade settled for $31 million over two years.
The Heat did find a replacement for LeBron in Luol Deng, who will offer some great defence and a decent offensive game. Last season’s playoffs showed that father time is catching up with Wade and he can’t just flick the switch when he pleases, but that won’t stop him offering glimpses of his former self. Chris Bosh has an opportunity to be the man like he was back in Toronto, and he’ll get great support from Wade, Deng, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Ray Allen re-signing is unlikely, but crazier things have happened.
The Heat did add Josh McRoberts, who is a perimeter shooting big man, to try and add depth to their front line and they still do have “Birdman” Chris Andersen in the paint. But apart from that, your next big is Udonis Haslem. Coach Erik Spoelstra will certainly have his hands full.
7. Brooklyn Nets
I don’t care how old Kevin Garnett is, there will never be a time where I root against him. KG will be back for his 20th season in the league and he says he’s ready to be more aggressive than last year. Joe Johnson will be looking to up his scoring numbers and add an eighth All-Star appearance to his resume. The Nets have a new coach in the experienced and defensively-minded Lionel Hollins, and have also added capable sixth man Jarrett Jack to the fold.
But this year could hinge on the production of former All-Stars Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. If Lopez can remain healthy, he may prove to be a very valuable asset inside and return to his All-Star form. Williams will be looking to improve on a campaign which saw him average his lowest points per game and assists per game totals since his rookie year.
8. New York Knicks
The ‘Zen Master’ Phil Jackson and a ton of money convinced Carmelo Anthony to stay put in New York. ‘Melo’ has stated he thinks the Knicks are good enough to compete in the playoffs this season, even though most NBA pundits think they’ll just be making up numbers. This hurts as a Knicks fan, but I see this team making the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. We know what to expect from Melo, but it’s whether or not his supporting cast will be able to help keep the ship afloat that remains to be seen.
The Knicks did upgrade at the point replacing Raymond Felton with Jose Calderon but they lost their best defensive player in Tyson Chandler. Tim Hardaway Jr. will be looking to improve in his sophomore year and hopefully Amare Stoudemire can contribute. As for the erratic J.R. Smith, well, let’s just hope he can regain the form that won him a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2012/13.
Derek Fisher has pulled a Jason Kidd and jumped straight from the court to the coach’s hot-seat, but will be looked after by arguably one of the greatest coaches in NBA history in Jackson. A proven leader on the floor, this season will be a good indicator as to his leadership skills off the court.
Without further ado, here are a couple of wildcards I see maybe squeezing into the playoffs in the East:
Atlanta Hawks – Paul Millsap had an awesome year and will be looking to build on it with more positive play. The Hawks were without centre Al Horford for a large portion of 2013/14. His presence in the line-up could help the Hawks achieve another trip to the playoffs. Plus, watching Kyle Korver nail three-pointers from all over the place is certainly an enjoyable experience.
Indiana Pacers – We all saw the horrific injury to Paul George in the Team USA scrimmage but he is showing signs of a fast recovery, as he has been seen shooting jumpers already. The Pacers lost Lance Stephenson to the Hornets but still have great leadership in David West. Roy Hibbert had one of the most bizarre seasons by an NBA player I have ever seen last year, but hopefully he will be able to regain his All-Star form and dominate the paint. George Hill will have his hands full running the offence in the absence of PG-13 (coolest nickname by the way), but he is an OK shooter and passer and will have options inside to throw the ball to in West, Hibbert and Luis Scola.