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.
For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!
Happy Easter, NBA fans! Just in case you haven’t been following all the recent developments in the league this week, here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands:
Chicago Bulls – The Bulls still have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. But in addition to all this news is that Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful to play today against the New York Knicks after missing 12 games with a groin injury. If D-Rose can mesh with the team chemistry the Bulls established without their MVP on the court, look out for this team in the playoffs.
Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have dropped some games this week, raising concerns about whether or not this team will be peaking at the right time. People are right when they say that you can’t just turn it on and off, but if any team can, it’s the Heat. Despite getting smashed by the Grizzlies, keep in mind that Memphis is the sleeper team of the West and it was only one game. Miami and LeBron made a statement in a win over the Thunder on Wednesday and should be comfortable entering the postseason with the two seed.
Indiana Pacers – Despite dropping a game against the Celtics at home in an ugly offensive performance, the Pacers have taken the three spot in the East like I predicted they would. The Pacers were on a five-game winning streak until their off-night against Boston and have looked impressive with wins over Houston, New York and OKC. Danny Granger has been a terrific leader and has stepped up his offensive production when Indiana has needed him to. Don’t be surprised if this sleeper team makes some noise in the playoffs as the third seed.
Boston Celtics – The Celtics have been on the rise in the past few games thanks to Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, but you can expect them to lose a fair amount of games down the stretch because of their tough remaining schedule. The Celtics have a two-game lead over the 76ers for the fourth seed and the top spot in the Atlantic division, but with their remaining schedule, it’s even money on who takes this spot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Celtics did hang on, if only because of how bad the Sixers have been lately.
Atlanta Hawks – While the Hawks haven’t proven much in their three-game winning streak (they beat Charlotte twice and Detroit), they are only a half-game behind Indiana for the third seed. Josh Smith has been playing like a man possessed this month, doing it all for Atlanta. The Hawks’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, but it remains to be seen how this inconsistent team will fare once the playoffs roll around.
Orlando Magic – After a tumultuous week of friction, media criticism and poor play, the Magic ended their five-game losing streak with a much-needed win in Philadelphia. Even though Philly isn’t playing good ball right now, the win was impressive because Orlando was without Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as the fact that Dwight Howard has been getting hammered for the past few days. Superman responded with a statement game: 20 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. As long as Stan Van Gundy and D12 focus on playing basketball, the Magic will at least compete.
Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers have lost three straight and four of their last five. I predicted this team was a pretender, but I didn’t think they’d collapse like this heading into the postseason. Philly has an easier remaining schedule than Boston, but the way they’re playing right now, with Andre Iguodala getting booed at the free throw line at home, things are looking good. All this combined with their ever-present inability to score should make for a first-round exit in the playoffs.
New York Knicks – The Knicks are playing great basketball right now and Carmelo Anthony has finally started to play like the quality superstar fans have waited for since he first came to New York. It took almost an entire season, but Melo is finally in shape and shooting well, so even with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire still sidelined, the Knicks are in good shape. Iman Shumpert and the rest of the Knicks’ role players have all stepped up, but New York still has to keep winning because of how good the Bucks are playing. The Knicks are only one game behind Philly for the seventh seed but are just one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.
Milwaukee Bucks – The final playoff-contending team in the East is doing everything it can to catch the Knicks for the last postseason spot, but the Knicks are doing extremely well in winning to keep Milwaukee at bay. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis look like they’ve grown acclimated to each other and form one of the most formidable backcourts in the NBA. Jennings, Ellis and Ersan Illyasova, along with a suddenly lively bench, will keep them in the playoff hunt until the end.
I’ve already given my picks for who will make the playoffs in the West, but now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. The East is a little bit easier as far as picking which eight teams will make the cut (only the Milwaukee Bucks are even remotely close to the Knicks for the eighth spot), but things get a little bit trickier in deciding who will end up where. Here’s where I think the eight Eastern contenders will end up when all is said and done:
1) Chicago Bulls – If the Bulls can win without their reigning MVP point guard, nobody is catching Chicago at this point. The Bulls currently have a 3 and a half game lead over the Miami Heat for the top spot, which is particularly impressive considering Derrick Rose has been sidelined for their last eight games. I still think this team won’t go very far in the postseason without D-Rose, but Chicago’s incredible team play almost made me reconsider it. CJ Watson has been perfect for running the offense as a true point guard while Luol Deng has stepped up as Chicago’s alpha dog. Nobody’s running with the Bulls for the top spot this season.
2) Miami Heat – The Heat are currently 3 and a half games behind the Bulls for the first spot in the East, and although I’m picking them to go to the NBA Finals over Chicago, I don’t think they’ll rack up as many wins as they’d need to take that one seed. When the Heat lose games, they have a tendency to go on losing streaks, even if they’re only small slumps. The Bulls, on the other hand, have yet to lose back-to-back games this season. Miami will grab the two spot, but that really doesn’t matter much for this heavy postseason favorite.
3) Indiana Pacers – This is by far the boldest pick I’m going to make, but I think the Pacers can edge the Magic for the third seed in the East. If not for the rule that the winner of a division must get at least a four seed, the Pacers would already have that position locked down, only trailing the Magic by one game. Instead, because of that rule, either Boston or Philly has to get the four seed. That fact, along with the misfortune of having the league-leading Bulls in the same division, means Indiana will have to battle to get the quality seed they deserve. However, the Pacers’ remaining schedule is definitely in their favor as the really only play San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Philly twice and Chicago (last game of the season). The rest are very winnable games, so if Indiana keeps their focus they could quickly turn into the squad I projected as my sleeper team at the beginning of the season.
4) Philadelphia 76ers – Philly dropped all the way to the seventh spot in the East last night after an awful loss to the Washington Wizards in which they could only tally 76 points. While other contending teams in the East seem to be peaking at the right time, the Sixers are fading fast (like I predicted they would). However, this is still a good defensive team, and that will usually keep you in games. Despite the fact that I think the Sixers will make a quick first-round exit no matter what seed they get, I think Philly will win the division and grab the fourth spot, if only because of Boston’s formidable remaining schedule.
5) Orlando Magic – The Magic currently have a one-game lead over the Pacers for the three seed, but Orlando is not playing good basketball right now. Their last two games were a blowout loss in New York and a disappointing loss at home against Dallas in which the Magic led for the majority of the game. Orlando also has a much more challenging road to the end of the season than the Pacers, and while their phenomenal 22-3 record against teams below .500 should almost guarantee a few wins, their unimpressive 10-17 record against teams above .500 won’t help them when nine of their last 14 games are against opponents in that category.
6) Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are a paltry 9-17 against teams above .500, and 7 of their last 13 games come against teams who fit that qualification. Even though Atlanta has a pretty favorable remaining schedule, I don’t see the Hawks outwinning the Pacers or the Magic and will likely be pushed back to the sixth seed. Their inconsistent play against teams that matter has always kept this team from reaching the upper echelon of the NBA they easily qualify for. I expect it to hold them back a little bit here as well, even if Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are both playing great ball right now.
7) Boston Celtics – If the remaining schedules were different, I would favor Boston over Philly in a heartbeat. Philly’s defense is good but I can’t buy in to their ability to score when their leading scorer comes off the bench. However, the Celtics have the misfortune of perhaps the ugliest remaining schedule in the NBA: Miami three times, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Philly, Atlanta twice, Orlando and New York. As much as the Celts have proved me wrong this season by battling through trade rumors and an aging Big 3, and as much as Rajon Rondo has played like a superstar after being snubbed for the All-Star game (he ended up going anyone in Joe Johnson’s place, but he was upset about not getting voted in), I just don’t see Boston winning enough of these games to oust Philly from atop the Atlantic division (remember, the winner of this division will get the four seed).
8) New York Knicks – Injuries are starting to take their toll, and despite the fact that New York somehow has still been able to win (that Orlando blowout was particularly impressive), eventually the Knicks will miss Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. Carmelo Anthony can only continue his elevated play for so long, especially with some particularly nasty matchups coming up soon when Amare (and possibly Lin) will still be sidelined: Indiana, Orlando and a back-to-back with Chicago. Although they are currently only one and a half games ahead, the Knicks should be fine in keeping their distance from the Bucks for the last playoff spot, but I don’t expect them to climb any higher than the eight seed.
Didn’t make the cut: Milwaukee Bucks
9) Milwaukee Bucks – Milwaukee is only one and a half games back right now, but the Bucks will have problems with their remaining schedule (OKC, New York, Indiana twice, Philly and Boston). I’m excited to see Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis continue to develop together with surprise sensation Ersan Ilyasova, but I don’t think it will result in a playoff appearance this year. New York just has too much talent to allow the Bucks back in the playoff race.
So there you have it, my predictions for the Eastern Conference standings for the playoffs. Where do you have everyone in the East finishing?
Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.
Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.
But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…
The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.
Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.
Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.
The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.
Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.
I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.
Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.
The Milwaukee Bucks recently snuck into the number 8 seed in the East, but after today’s fantastic trade, they may have a few more spots to climb. The Bucks acquired Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown from Golden State and will send the injury-laden pair of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors.
For the Bucks, this is a fantastic trade at the moment. Although they initially struggled without their star big man Bogut, Milwaukee worked its way back into the playoff race thanks phenomenal elevated play from Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden, consistently great play from Jennings, and the Knicks’ six game losing streak. All with Bogut and Jackson sitting on the bench. Can you imagine a starting lineup of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ilyasova, Gooden and Tobias Harris, with Mike Dunleavy (consistent bench scoring), Carlos Delfino (current starter averaging 9.0 ppg) and Beno Udrih (a semi-efficient guard) coming off the bench and giving decent minutes? Ignoring the Tobias Harris part, that sounds like a pretty decent squad! The biggest concern is how Jennings and Ellis will play together, as both are phenomenal guards who look to score first and need a lot of shots. The give-and-take at the guard position may take some getting used to if this team is to be successful. But if these two can learn to play together, you’re potentially looking at the NBA’s most dangerous backcourt. Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh don’t really bring much to the table, but trading Milwaukee’s two injured players for the Warriors’ scoring machine, especially when one of those players has a history of injury, is a great move for the Bucks.
On the other side of the coin, this move is perplexing if you’re a Warriors fan, as Golden State just gave up its best offensive weapon for two injured players who have been riding Milwaukee’s bench all season. Bogut has played in 12 games this season, spending the majority of his time on the sideline after fracturing his ankle against the Rockets on Jan. 25. Stephen Jackson hasn’t played since Feb. 19, sitting out with a hamstring injury, but even when he was healthy, he saw limited minutes as Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles didn’t like his attitude problem. Apparently the Warriors have given up on Mark Jackson and the Warriors for this season and look to rebuild for next year starting now. A healthy core of Curry, Bogut, Jackson, and David Lee along with Dorrell Wright, Brandon Rush and Nate Robinson is an interesting concept for next season, especially if Coach Jackson can learn to control the new Jackson. But as long as Curry continues to be riddled with ankle injuries and Mark Jackson continues to struggle as a head coach (you think Stephen Jackson’s attitude problem will improve with a first-year coach?), Warriors basketball may not be so fun to watch for the time being.
NOTE: Could the Warriors be setting themselves up to try and trade multiple pieces for Dwight Howard? They now have Bogut, Jackson, Curry, Lee and other role-player assets that could be packaged into a big deal for Superman. It would be interesting to see what kind of package would interest the Magic in exchange for Howard, but just a thought to keep in mind.
Here are the major highlights of Sunday’s NBA action:
Thunder vs. Nuggets – The Thunder got a quality win in overtime in the best game of the day, outlasting the Nuggets 124-118 thanks to a monster game from Kevin Durant, who finished with a career-high 51 points and 8 rebounds. Russell Westbrook would have been the story with 40 points and 9 assists if not for Durant’s big night. The Thunder closed the first half on an 8-0 run as Denver came into Oklahoma City determined despite not having Danilo Gallinari or Nene. But the run carried over into the second half as OKC opened the third quarter on a 12-0 run. Although the resilient Nuggets surged to tie the game at 83 heading into the 4th, the Thunder would not be denied as Kevin Durant scored 5 points in the final 35 seconds to send it to overtime. Serge Ibaka finished with a triple double of 14 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocks, while Arron Afflalo led the Nuggets with 27 points. The Thunder got a great overtime win here, but look for the Nuggets to go back to their winning ways once Gallinari and Nene return.
Knicks vs. Mavs – The Mavs came into Madison Square Garden on a six-game winning streak and Dirk played at his best, scoring 34 points. But the Knicks would not be denied and proved themselves as legitimate contenders in the East with a 104-97 win. Despite having 9 turnovers, Jeremy Lin led the Knicks with 28 points and 14 assists, while JR Smith had 15 points in his debut in New York. Steve Novak and Lin led the late charge as they Knicks erased a third quarter deficit capped off by Lin’s steal and dunk, while Novak then knocked down four 3’s in the 4th quarter. Six players scored in double digits for New York. With an impressive win like this over a quality defensive Dallas squad, one has to wonder how good the Knicks can be when Melo returns. Just think about this starting lineup: Lin, JR, Melo, Amare and Chandler.
Heat vs. Magic – Although the Knicks/Mavs contest was an exciting game to watch, the Heat showed they are still the beast of the East from the get-go, winning 90-78. Wade had 12 points in the first quarter, including an impossible fadeaway in the corner and two alley-oop dunks from James (one from half court). LeBron James almost ended up with a triple double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists and Wade pitched in 27 points. The Magic looked underwhelming once again and it seems they may not be a very functional unit until Dwight Howard is either traded or commits to staying. JJ Reddick started for Jason Richardson (who sat out with chest pain) and led the team with 17 points. Howard had 12 points and 15 rebounds.
Timberwolves vs. 76ers – The Timberwolves were able to edge the 76ers 92-91 with .01 seconds left on a pair of Kevin Love free throws in a close game that came down to the wire in Minnesota. Jrue Holiday led the 76ers with 20 points and 5 rebounds, while Ricky Rubio led the T-Wolves with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Love finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Look for the Timberwolves to be in the hunt for the playoffs this year, even if the 76ers may be slightly overrated right now.
Suns vs. Lakers – The Suns exacted a little revenge on Kobe and the Lakers at home in a dominant 102-90 win after surging to a 63-40 halftime lead. Jared Dudley had a season-high 25 points to lead Phoenix. Marcin Gortat ended up with 21 points and 15 rebounds while Grant Hill added 15 points. Kobe Bryant continued his personal dominance against the Suns, finishing with 36 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
Cavs vs. Kings – Kyrie Irving hit two free throws with .04 seconds to go to give the Cavs a close 93-92 win over the Kings. Irving’s free throws came just seconds after Demarcus Cousins hit a bucket to give Sacramento the lead. Irving finished with 23 points and Antawn Jamison had 21. Isaiah Thomas had a career-high 23 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds in his second start.
Pistons vs. Celtics – Boston continued to struggle and show signs of frustration with a 96-81 loss to the streaking Detroit Pistons, who have won seven of their last nine games. Greg Monroe had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists while Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 18. Boston was missing Kevin Garnett due to personal reasons, as well as Brandon Bass who is still out with a knee injury. Doc Rivers and Chris Wilcox received technicals for arguing calls with the referees. Rajon Rondo received two technicals in less than ten seconds after throwing the ball at the referee and was ejected.
Pacers vs. Bobcats – The Pacers looked to keep the momentum going with a 108-73 blow out of the Bobcats after their last win, which followed a five-game losing streak. Roy Hibbert had 18 points and 14 rebounds for Indiana, while Danny Granger and David West each chipped in 14 points. Derrick Brown led the Bobcats with 16 points and Kemba Walker added 15. The Bobcats have lost 17 of their last 18 games. Keep an eye on the Pacers going forward; they may not have flash, but good teams beat teams they’re supposed to.
Nets vs. Bucks – The Bucks beat the Nets 92-85 thanks to career highs from Ersan Ilyasova, who had 29 points and 25 rebounds. Brandon Jennings had 17 points while Deron Williams led New Jersey with 26 points. Brook Lopez, who has missed the entire season with a broken foot, played 22 minutes and had 9 points and 2 rebounds. Be sure that Brook Lopez is no longer on your IR in fantasy leagues.
Rockets vs. Jazz – The Rockets held off a late rally by the Jazz in a 101-85 win thanks to Kyle Lowry’s 32 points and 9 assists. Luis Scola had 26 points, while Al Jefferson led Utah with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The win has the Rockets as the seven spot in the West.