HoopsHabit Hangout – Atlantic Division 2013-14 Preview

This week on HoopsHabit Hangout, my fellow writers and I talk division previews for the Atlantic Division. We talk about the best player in the division, give predictions for win totals for each team and pick a division winner! For fans of the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors.

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Eastern Conference First Round Predictions

Now that we’ve taken a look at the Western Conference, it’s time to take a look at the all-but-determined Eastern Conference. Nobody is predicting anyone but Miami coming out of the East, but I wouldn’t be so sure if the Knicks reach the conference finals. LeBron is on another level right now, but the Knicks are stubborn enough to believe they can win and if they reach that stage, a week or two of hot shooting could unseat the defending champs if they don’t stay motivated.

(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks:

Despite Brandon Jennings’ super-inspiring prediction that the Bucks will beat Miami in six games, I’m going to err on the side of realism here and not-so-boldly predict that Milwaukee is in for a quick first-round exit. Even though they’ve been resting their starters for a while now, which raises concerns about rust, the Miami Heat are a clear favorite in this series and the East in general. Rust or not, LeBron James is on top of his game and Milwaukee has no one that can even remotely slow him down. Dwyane Wade’s health is an area of concern, but as long as he can play, the Bucks have their own lingering injuries to worry about. As much as I love Jennings’ confidence, I’d be surprised if this series lasts longer than five games.

Keys to the series: Injuries and taking care of business. The only thing that can stop the Miami Heat from dominating the East is the Miami Heat or injuries. If the Heat get complacent or Dwyane Wade goes down again, this matchup may be more competitive. But as long as they stay healthy and keep the goal in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an incredibly boring sweep here. Jennings hasn’t played well in over a month, Monta Ellis is not good enough to beat Miami’s defense by himself and Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders may not even be fully healthy. Tune in if you want to watch LeBron James be LeBron James, or if you’re interested in Brandon Jennings’ trying to advertise himself to teams looking to pick him up in the offseason. But other than that, this series should be over quickly.

Prediction: Miami Heat in 4 games

(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics:

The Knicks are simultaneously being pegged as the only resistance the Miami Heat will face in the East and a potential first round upset. So which is it? I believe it’s the former, but a matchup with the Boston Celtics certainly isn’t favorable. The Knicks rely primarily on Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith’s new-found efficiency and 3-point shooting to win games. At least two of those three things aren’t guaranteed with the playoffs rolling around, especially against Boston’s lockdown defense and veteran savvy. The Celtics are known for making unexpected playoff runs on the shoulders of defense, experience and Doc Rivers’ superior coaching. And with the recent tragedies in Boston this past week, it’s impossible to deny that the Celtics are playing for something greater now. This kind of unity makes them a very dangerous squad that is very capable of pushing the Knicks to the brink, especially for the games in Boston if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t hobbled. However, I still think New York is the better team and that unless Jeff Green goes beserk on both ends of the floor, Carmelo Anthony and Smith will be too much for the Celtics to handle.

Keys to the series: Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony and Jeff Green. We start with KG, who is essential to the Celtics’ hopes of a first round upset. Garnett anchors Boston’s defense and provides the leadership and experience needed for this team to pull it off. But he hasn’t played 30 minutes since March 10 and has dealt with lingering injuries over the past month. Can he really log playoff minutes and perform late in games after missing so much time? Garnett’s ability to perform while dealing with fatigue down the stretch in close games will be a factor here. Then we have Carmelo Anthony. As long as Melo continues to score at will as he has for the past month, the Knicks should take care of business. Even though TD Garden is already a tough place to play without the entire city having something to rally behind, I don’t know that the Celtics can stop New York’s ball movement that starts with Melo’s superb passing out of double teams. Finally, there’s Jeff Green, who must have a big series. He will be responsible for trying to slow Melo down and has to contribute points on the other end as well. Although New York appears like they are primed for the upset, I don’t think Melo’s lack of playoff wins will be a factor anymore.

Prediction: New York Knicks in 7 games

(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks:

This Pacers-Hawks series joins the Nets-Bulls matchup in a tie for “most boring and ultimately meaningless first round playoff series.” Nothing against the Pacers and their stifling defense, but even if they do advance past the Hawks and the Knicks/Celtics in the following round, I don’t believe they have it in them to take out Miami without Danny Granger. Paul George has started to truly develop into a star this season, but Indiana would need him to shoot the lights out in a series against the Heat. I still believe New York is the only team built to contend with Miami and a lot of that is due to Roy Hibbert’s offensive woes and Indiana’s overall inconsistencies on that end. The Hawks are athletic and Josh Smith and Al Horford make up a formidable frontcourt, but Atlanta always hits their ceiling too early and aren’t built to make a playoff run. Roy Hibbert and David West should be able to limit Smith and Horford to some capacity, meaning Indiana’s advantage in the backcourt will give them an edge. The Hawks are too inconsistent to upset the Pacers and I expect this series to be a drawn out victory for Indiana.

Keys to the series: Backcourt production. As I’ve said already, Josh Smith and Al Horford will get theirs on the offensive end. But Roy Hibbert and David West make up a frightening interior defense and will limit them from taking over games and really hurting the Pacers in a seven-game series. So where else will the Hawks get production? Can we really expect Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris to score the points the Hawks need to contend in this series? Or is it reasonable to believe that George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George make up a superior backcourt? Unless Horford and Smith torch the Pacers’ defense (which won’t happen), the Hawks will be going home early once again.

Prediction: Indiana Pacers in 6 games

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls):

All year long we’ve had to hear about how good the Brooklyn Nets are. We’ve put up with the hype of a new team, the new logo, the new colors, the new arena, Jay-Z’s presence and the Brooklyn-New York rivalry. We’ve had to hear about how good a defender Gerald Wallace is, how Deron Williams is a great point guard and how popular the Nets are with their own television series. Well, enough is enough. Brook Lopez deserved an All-Star spot and Reggie Evans is a rebounding machine, but other than that, the Nets are one of the most overrated teams in the NBA. Deron Williams has only recently revived one of the worst seasons in his career. Joe Johnson has always been overpaid in my book. And Gerald Wallace’s numbers have deteriorated every year for the last four years. Nothing against Brooklyn, but the Bulls are fully capable of knocking this team out in the first round. There are some key factors that will ultimately decide whether they can pull it off, however.

Keys to the series: Joakim Noah, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. People are desperate for Derrick Rose’s return and rightfully so. But I think that realistically, Joakim Noah’s return is much more important at this point. Noah is the anchor of Chicago’s interior defense and without him, the Bulls will have a hard time slowing down Brook Lopez in the scoring column or Reggie Evans in the rebounding column. If Noah can play in this series, I expect the Bulls to advance since they won the season series convincingly (3-1). The second major key to this series is whether or not the Bulls can slow down Deron Williams. This former All-Star was having one of his worst years until he revived his season after the All-Star break. But if Chicago’s perimeter defense of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler can slow him and Joe Johnson down, the Nets won’t beat Chicago with Lopez alone. Finally, it has to be said: If Derrick Rose returns, interest in this offensively crippled series will be instantly revived. The odds are that he won’t return, but if he does, Chicago has a huge advantage on the offensive end. There are a LOT of “ifs” in this series, but for now I’m going with the defensive squad that will be a tough and scrappy team to face either way.

Prediction: Chicago Bulls in 7 games

Boston-Brooklyn Brawl

Last night in Boston, a hard foul from Kris Humphries on Kevin Garnett resulted in a brawl that will likely result in fines and/or suspensions for Rajon Rondo and Gerald Wallace as well as Humphries and Garnett. Garnett was going up for a shot in the second quarter when Humphries fouled him. On KG’s way down to the floor, it seemed as though Humphries extended his arm and gave him a push with his hand to send him down harder. Rondo quickly took issue with the foul, getting in Humphries face and pushing him out of bounds. A brawl soon erupted with Rondo swinging and Humphries doing his best not to get run over as the aggressor Rondo drove him back into the stands. As the two were jostling in the crowd, Wallace and KG stepped into the fray as well. The brawl ended pretty soon after Wallace entered the mix because, well, who wants to get into it with Gerald Wallace? Once the players were separated, Boston’s so-called leader emerged without his jersey. He probably won’t be needing it for a while.

Rondo, Humphries and Wallace were all ejected from the game and Garnett received a technical foul. Rondo’s ejection meant his consecutive games streak with 10 or more assists came to an end at 37, which is tied with John Stockton for second on the all-time list (Magic Johnson holds the record at 46). Although Humphries’ foul was uncalled for and likely would have resulted in a flagrant foul or a technical foul, Rondo’s actions call for harsh punishment from the league and deservedly so.

Rajon Rondo immediately went after Kris Humphries after his hard foul on Garnett.

Not only was it Rondo’s fault that the fight carried into the stand, but this brawl in Boston wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t taken such issue issue with the hard foul. Wanting to protect your teammate is understandable, especially since such a foul could have hurt an older guy like KG, but Rondo has to learn that his actions and his bad attitude are unacceptable. There’s a difference between sticking up for your teammates and hurting the team by being a punk. If this were a first-time offense it wouldn’t be so bad but Rondo’s been subject to these outbursts of bad behavior before. The league will (and should) suspend Rondo for multiple games, with Wallace, Humphries and KG all potential targets for fines and/or suspension as well.

We’ve heard for years about how intelligent Rajon Rondo is and we’ve seen it on the court too. We understand how competitive this young point guard is and without that competitive fire and leadership, the Celtics would probably just be another aging team. But as some point in time, Rondo will need to step up and be a real leader of this Boston group. Doc Rivers said it best, but this kind of tough guy routine isn’t actual toughness. If anything, Rondo’s overreaction shows how soft he is and how easy it is to bother him if something like a hard foul can get that far under his skin. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but a guy who shoves referees, gets in regular spats with guys like Dwyane Wade and now has multiple ejections under his belt, he should know better. I personally miss the days when NBA rivalries got a little nasty and when players didn’t back down from anybody, but it’s a different league now. Players get technical fouls just for looking at a referee wrong. And because of this changing culture of referee control and league reviews, Rondo needs to cut the tough guy routine and be the leader Boston needs. And staying on the floor is a good place to start.

If the Celtics want to challenge anyone in the East this year, Rondo will need to fix his attitude.

What We All Should Think of the James Harden Trade

Now that all the facts of one of the most shocking trades of the offseason have come pouring in, I thought it was important to separate fact from fiction to determine what NBA fans should think about James Harden leaving Oklahoma City. Was Harden greedy? Or was this OKC’s fault?

In short, it was OKC’s fault. You can gripe about how Harden turning down a $55.5 million deal over four years is selfish considering he’ll only be getting $60 million over four in Houston, but there are a few facts to consider. For those who say that Harden doesn’t deserve a max deal, that’s just downright foolish. Harden was a top 25 player in the league last year, and although many claimed he reaped the benefits of playing against the other team’s bench, often with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s just not true. Harden led the Thunder past the Mavs in crunch time during the postseason last year. He delivered critical blows to a Lakers’ squad that couldn’t keep him from getting to the basket and the free throw line. His consistency balanced out Westbrook’s poor shooting streaks. His chemistry with his brothers in OKC was palpable. He was the third best player on his team, but a lot of championship teams have needed a third, underrated player who could give up shots but still be effective with his minutes like Harden. And even if you disagree with all of that, about half the league would have given Harden a max deal if they had the cap space.

So how is all that OKC’s fault? After all, they did offer him a pretty sweet deal that wasn’t far behind what he’ll be getting in Houston, right? Wrong. Harden originally wanted a five-year deal, but OKC went with four, which would allow him to trade him if they wanted to when the time was right. Much like the Celtics did with Rondo, they tried to convince Harden they wouldn’t trade him if he just agreed to a smaller deal now. They wanted him to take less money with no guarantee he’d stay in OKC for the extended future. When Harden refused and held out for the max deal he deserves, OKC management declined and immediately shipped him off to Houston. And since Houston wants him to sign an extension, Harden will probably get a five year, $75 million deal. Which, as I’ve said, is what he fully deserves.

I was originally disgusted with Harden’s decision to turn down that kind of money and break up OKC’s dynamic young group with so much chemistry. But then the facts came out. And the truth is, this wasn’t his fault. This is on Oklahoma City, a team that said they didn’t want to offer Harden a max deal because it would put them over the luxury tax. But considering their extensive profits last year, paying the measly luxury tax is a small price for keeping a championship-contending group intact.

James Harden turned down a good deal, but he didn’t ruin what could have been in OKC

Like the rest of the nation, I was struck by the three stars of Oklahoma City standing arm in arm as the clock ran out in the NBA Finals last year. That moment was a sad one, but because of the youth of those three, it also seemed like the perfect moment to reflect on later, a time when this talented young dynasty finally broke through and won their first title. Now that moment is wasted. We’ll never see that dynasty happen now. Durant might win a title, but OKC’s path to the Finals will be nearly impossible without the chemistry and bench scoring Harden brought to the team. Kevin Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb will be a fine prospect one day, but neither one of them will provide the chemistry Harden brought. None of them will fit in with Durant and Westbrook the way Harden did. And no one can replace the fan favorite beard that became a trademark symbol of the special unity the Thunder shared. Oklahoma City effectively stepped down as favorites to win the Western Conference and ruined their title chances, possibly for good, by shipping Harden away. The Lakers and Spurs now seem poised to send the Thunder home disappointed once again. Because as talented as Durant and Westbrook are, Harden was an instrumental part of their championship-contending team last year.

As for Harden? He’ll never get the chance to redeem his disappearing act in the NBA Finals last year. He’s extremely talented and I think he can step up as Houston’s top scorer, but he won’t lead the Rockets to a championship. He won’t have a shot at a title in Houston. We will never get to see what might have been with the young Thunder dynasty. We’ll miss out on some truly epic Finals between the Miami Heat and OKC squad hungry for revenge. All because OKC didn’t want to shell out some extra money to continue sporting one of the most exciting, talented and profitable teams in the league. All because their financial motivations outweighed the desire for a championship. This team certainly could have afforded to keep Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka together. Yeah, they got draft picks, but what message does that send? That it’s ok to change the lineup of a team THAT WAS IN THE FINALS LAST YEAR as long as you leave some light at the end of the tunnel? That saving your organization a measly amount of money for one year is worth wasting your chances at a repeat appearance in the Finals or a few potential championships? You can’t blame Harden for asking for what he deserved. This one’s on Oklahoma City.

With the Harden trade, OKC may have handed over the West

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 20

Here’s an update on the latest NBA free agency news via Reup Sports, including analysis on Jeremy Lin becoming a Rocket, updated Dwight Howard trade rumors and recent signings in Los Angeles. Check out the article here.

NBA Free Agency Roundup – 7/4/12

Another day, another hundred rumors and moves of NBA free agency. Here’s everything that went down today to keep you up to speed heading into Independence Day:

Deron Williams Staying With Nets:

Deron Williams came to his ultimate decision today, choosing to stay in Brooklyn over leaving for his hometown of Dallas to play for the Mavericks. Williams’ contract is a five-year, $98 million deal that will team him up with Joe Johnson for the time being. Williams coming back is great news for the Nets, but for now, he is just a piece of the puzzle that is still missing Dwight Howard.

D-Will decided to stay in Brooklyn in the hopes the Nets continue to brighten their future.

Trade Could Still Bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn:

According to league sources, the trade for Joe Johnson didn’t quite put the Nets out of contention for Orlando superstar Dwight Howard. A possible trade that would send Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and first-round picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017 to Orlando in exchange for D-12 is being discussed although nothing is set in stone. The Nets are looking for a third party to facilitate the trade, but the Magic are also looking into possible trades with the Lakers, Hawks and Rockets. The Mavericks are also in the running to get Howard, but only if he waits to explore free agency next year. If the Nets were able to swing Howard down to Brooklyn, they would be giving up a lot, but they’d be looking at a potential nucleus of Howard, Deron Williams and Johnson as well as Gerald Wallace, who signed a four-year extension for $40 million, according to league sources.

Is this still a possibility for the on-the-rise Brooklyn Nets?

Eric Gordon Wants to be a Sun:

The Suns have offered Eric Gordon a four-year deal for $58 million and after visiting Phoxenix, New Orleans’ star point guard feels that it is the place for him. The Hornets can easily match the offer as they have been saying they would if Gordon received any max offers, but Gordon’s comments about wanting to play in Phoenix might mean that New Orleans chooses to let him go. Gordon was supposed to form a solid nucleus with rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, but it remains to be seen what the Hornets’ plan of action will be.

The Hornets could match Phoenix’s offer, but will they do it now that Eric Gordon made his desire to be a Sun clear?

Jason Terry Agrees to Three-Year Deal with Celtics:

Jason Terry and the Celtics reached an agreement to a three-year deal worth $5 million annually. Although the deal certainly strengthened the bench with a wily veteran sixth man, Boston remains adamant about their desire to resign Ray Allen and Brandon Bass. The Mavericks can match Boston’s offer, but might not do so if they continue to look into point guards and the possibility of Dwight Howard next year.

Unless the Mavericks match the Celtics’ offer, the Jet will be landing in Boston.

Ray Allen to Visit Miami, LA Clippers:

Boston free agent Ray Allen will be visiting the Miami Heat this week as he continues to take his time with his options. The Celtics are committed to resigning their 3-point shooting veteran and can offer him a two-year, $12 million deal. However, the lure of winning another championship is certainly going Miami’s way after LeBron James and the Heat defeated Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before winning the title. Allen will also visit Los Angeles this week to hear offers from the Clippers, who view him as a starter. A few other teams are also still pursuing Allen, including the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Timberwolves and Hawks.

Ray Allen is still exploring his options between Boston, Miami and Los Angeles.

Jeremy Lin to Visit Houston Rockets:

A few weeks ago, it was very likely that Jeremy Lin would be returning to the New York Knicks. Now, the breakout star point guard is heading to Houston for a visit. The Knicks are certainly looking to resign Lin, but were unsure they’d be able to match other teams’ high offers and said they planned on playing it by ear. Other teams interested in Lin include the Raptors, Nets and Mavericks, although he is seen as a backup for each of these teams.

Jeremy Lin and the Knicks want to stay together, but Lin is still checking into his options.

More Point Guard Activity:

Now that the Mavericks failed to get their hands on Deron Williams, Dallas is looking for quality point guards, turning their sights on Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin. The Mavericks still haven’t made up their minds about Goran Dragic, who is reportedly having problems working out a contract with the Rockets and visited the Phoenix Suns Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers have also taken an interest in Nash, while free agent Jason Kidd has narrowed his decision down to either Dallas or the New York Knicks.

Goran Dragic and Steve Nash are still on the market as point guards for multiple teams.

Raptors Offer Landry Fields Three-Year Deal:

The Toronto Raptors have verbally agreed with Knicks’ guard Landry Fields to a three-year deal for nearly $20 million. Fields cannot sign a new contract until July 11 (when all free agents can sign new contracts), but the Knicks can still hold on to him if they match Toronto’s offer. It remains to be seen whether or not New York would spend that kind of money on a role player with Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith all potentially coming back, however.

The signing of Landry Fields in Toronto may be a play to get Steve Nash to join the Raptors as well.

Pacers Agree to Five-Year Deal with George Hill:

Indiana point guard George Hill signed a five-year extension to stay with the Pacers, though details of the deal were not disclosed. The Pacers will also be looking to keep Roy Hibbert, who was offered $58 million in a four-year deal with the Blazers. Indiana will have to match that offer to retain their All-Star center. However, if they don’t match, league sources say the Pacers will pursue Denver’s JaVale McGee and New Orleans’ Chris Kaman.

George Hill signed an extension with the Indiana Pacers, ruling out any possibility they had for Nash or Dragic

Nets Add Bosnian Forward Teletovic and Reggie Evans:

The Nets have verbally agreed to a three-year deal with Mirza Teletovic worth just under $16 million. Teletovic, a Bosnian forward at 6’9″, averaged 22 ppg and six rpg in the Euroleague this season. Since the Nets gave away almost their entire bench to get Joe Johnson and would have to give up even more for Dwight Howard, this signing could prove to be a very helpful addition if his game can translate decently into the NBA. The Nets also acquired the Clippers’ Reggie Evans from the Clippers in exchange for a future second-round pick. Evans was signed to a three-year, $5 million deal.

The Nets added LAC’s Reggie Evans and the Bosnian Mirza Teletovic.