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.

Pacers Advance

The Indiana Pacers eliminated the Orlando Magic with a 105-87 win at home in Game 5 last night to advance to the second round of the playoffs. A rocking crowd in the biggest basketball state in the country was there to cheer Indiana on to their first playoff series victory since 2005. The Pacers will now face the winner of the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks in the next round.

Danny Granger led the way for a playoff victory-deprived franchise, finishing with 25 points. Roy Hibbert didn’t have an exceptional game, but luckily for the Pacers, neither did Glen Davis, who had just 15 points and eight rebounds after being the Magic’s best offensive option through the first four games. George Hill and David West both reached double digits in scoring, but it was Darren Collison who ensured the Magic went home empty-handed, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to turn Indiana’s two point deficit after three quarters into a rout. The Pacers outscored Orlando 36-16 in the fourth quarter and ran away with the game despite Jameer Nelson hitting five 3-pointers and leading the Magic with 27 points.

Glen Davis hurt the Pacers all series long, but couldn’t get it done in Game 5.

For Orlando, Glen Davis’ mediocre game really hurt their chances of extending the series, but the majority of these games could have been much closer had Ryan Anderson shown up. Anderson only scored 14 points in Game 4 and averaged just 8.5 ppg for the series on a team with no Dwight Howard and struggling perimeter shooters. The Magic were also hurt by Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, who didn’t take many shots and missed the majority of them. Orlando surprised everyone with their Game 1 win in Indiana, but after getting that one victory to prove the world wrong and let everyone know they could play without Dwight Howard, they came back down to earth when the Pacers actually showed up for the next four games and revealed who the better team was. The battle between Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy over who will stay will likely be decided over the course of the next few months in the offseason, but Orlando had better hope they pick Superman. As good as Van Gundy is, he’s not more valuable than their superstar, which became clear after watching this series against a Pacers team that hasn’t exactly played lights out yet. While it’s unfortunate to suggest Orlando needs to pick their spoiled superstar over an extremely effective coach, the fact is that Van Gundy couldn’t elevate this team to the next level. Dwight Howard can. And if they do get rid of Howard, they’d better be sure to get another game changer who can lift this below-average squad back into playoff contention.

From Indiana’s side of things, they had pretty balanced scoring and really enjoyed the boost off the bench they got from Collison. They face a tough matchup in the second round, most likely against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. If the Knicks miraculously come back and take the series from Miami, Indiana has a much better shot of advancing, provided they limit Carmelo Anthony. Tyson Chandler will likely outplay Roy Hibbert but if David West can frustrate Amare Stoudemire, the Pacers have a better overall team. However, Miami will most likely advance, meaning the Pacers will have to do a few things to be competitive. Danny Granger will have to play lights out offensively and help with the boards. Paul George will have to find a way to use his length to bother LeBron while still contributing on the offensive end. George Hill and Darren Collison will have to keep up their recent level of production and demolish Miami’s guards. And Roy Hibbert will finally have to exploit his opponent’s lack of size to give his side some sort of advantage down low. David West and Chris Bosh will be a key matchup, but if Hibbert can dominate Miami’s bigs, the Pacers have a chance of competing with the Heat. The Pacers would also benefit from their bench outscoring Miami’s. In their series with New York, the Heat have gotten a small advantage from their bench and supporting cast with guys like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller hitting a few 3-pointers. This can’t happen to Indiana if they want to shock the world by knocking LeBron James out of the playoffs.

Danny Granger led the way for Indiana, but he’ll have to step it up even more next round.

Indiana Survives Orlando Comeback, Wins In Overtime

The Pacers survived a late Orlando rally and escaped Game 4 with a 101-99 victory in overtime to take a 3-1 lead on the series. Indiana made up for an embarrassing home loss to the Magic in their playoff opener by winning three straight, including both games in Orlando. The series now shifts back to Indiana and it looks like the Pacers will advance to the second round after edging Glen Davis and Jason Richardson in Game 4.

Although he missed a shot at the buzzer to send the game to double overtime, Glen Davis played another phenomenal game and somehow outperformed Roy Hibbert again, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds (compared to Hibbert’s 14 points and 11 rebounds). But even with Hibbert fouling out and Jason Richardson and the rest of Orlando’s perimeter guards hitting shots, the Magic were unable to get the win after erasing a 19-point deficit that the Pacers had built up with just over eight minutes to play. The Magic benefitted from much better outside shooting from Jason Richardson, who ended the night with 25 points, along with Hedo Turkoglu, who shot 50 percent. In fact, every one of Orlando’s starters finished in double digits, even though Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson struggled with their shooting. J.J. Reddick had 10 points, including a big 3-pointer late in regulation to tie the game up.

David West’s big game led the Pacers offensively in Game 4.

The Pacers built up a sizable third quarter advantage because of David West’s standout performance, leading Indiana with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Danny Granger fulfilled his role as a predominant scorer, finishing with 21 points and seven rebounds, but it was George Hill who ended up being the hero after scoring 11 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to hold off Orlando’s desperate run. Hill hit two free throws with 2.2 seconds left to put his team ahead in overtime, which was followed by Glen Davis’ last-second attempt to tie the game and send it to double overtime. And although Paul George only scored two points, his good defense on Davis’ last second shot helped secure Indiana’s Game 4 victory since Roy Hibbert had fouled out.

With the series heading back to Indiana for a decisive Game 5, as long as the Pacers take care of business, they should finish the Magic off. Despite their success in Orlando, they want to finish this series at home and as quickly as possible. Unless the Magic have a stellar shooting night and Ryan Anderson actually shows up to play, the Pacers should run away with this one. Credit Stan Van Gundy and the Magic for competing for the majority of this series, but without Dwight Howard, they’re not a threatening playoff opponent. The Pacers will need to play much better if they advance (which is pretty much a guarantee at this point), but for now, as long as they take care of business at home, they will get a chance to rest before they take on the Heat in round 2 (unless the Knicks defy NBA history and miraculously come back from a 3-0 deficit).

Glen Davis is still eating up Roy Hibbert in the series, but Indiana got the win anyway.

Roy Hibbert Wakes Up

I’ve been pretty hard on Roy Hibbert so far in the Pacers-Magic series because of his inability to dominate Glen Davis and the Orlando frontcourt despite having a five-inch advantage on his opposition. But Hibbert finally came to life in Game 3 and the Pacers cruised to a 97-74 victory on the road. Coincidence? I think not.

After a shocking and all-around ugly loss at home in their playoff opener, Indiana desperately needed to regroup for Game 2. Danny Granger disappeared when his team needed his leadership the most and shot the ball poorly. Hibbert got a huge number of blocks and rebounded well, but he was still outplayed by Glen Davis. And to top it all off, the Pacers bench was nowhere to be found. But in Game 2, they played a much more cohesive and focused game to tie the series up before heading to Orlando. But before Game 3, the one piece of the puzzle that was still missing that prevented this series from being a massacre was Roy Hibbert. And after his 18-point, 10-rebound Game 3 performance, it’s safe to say the Pacers could finally be back on track.

Roy Hibbert may have finally shown up for the playoffs.

Danny Granger is the alpha dog for this team and Glen Davis is still finding ways to score, but as long as Hibbert continues to rebound and put points on the scoreboard consistently, he should be able to at least balance Davis out. There’s no reason for Glen Davis to have outplayed Hibbert offensively in this series so far, but as long as Hibbert handles the defensive end by rebounding, contesting shots and possibly limiting Davis’ scoring, he’ll have done his job to help Indiana advance past this weaker Orlando team. Paul George and George Hill have been playing better and are consistently scoring, Danny Granger will continue to rack up points as long as he keeps shooting and even Darren Collison reached double figures in Game 3. So as long as Roy Hibbert holds up his end of the bargain by showing up every night (which really isn’t too much to ask considering the size advantage he has on Orlando’s back line), the Pacers should win this series in five games, six at the most.

On the Orlando side of things, Roy Hibbert’s Game 3 performance is pretty much a playoff death sentence. The Magic’s perimeter shooters (Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu) haven’t been able to get anything going since Game 1, Ryan Anderson has tremendously struggled shooting the ball and Jameer Nelson is scoring, but not consistently enough to be a real threat. J.J. Reddick has done well off the bench, but considering their starters’ inability to score outside of Glen Davis, this Magic team that had so much to play for in Game 1 is in serious trouble, even with Game 4 in Orlando tomorrow. Danny Granger will get his 20+ points per game, Paul George and George Hill are on the uprise and David West is a threat to have a good scoring night every game, which is why the Pacers have taken a 2-1 lead on the series. But if Roy Hibbert can lend his offensive talent to his defensive work so far, there is no possible way for Orlando to win this series.

Ryan Anderson has had a rough series so far. The Magic might be done at this point.

Van Gundy Works His Magic

Derrick Rose’s ACL tear and Miami’s blowout on the Knicks were big headlines today, but the Indiana Pacers losing Game 1 at home to the Howard-less Magic should make its own major headlines. I predicted the Pacers would sweep, but Stan Van Gundy and the Magic had other plans. After listening to how guaranteed Indiana’s victory was over the past few days, it’s no surprise Orlando came out fired up. They’ve had a tumultuous season dealing with Dwight Howard’s melodrama and the disunity between him and their coach, but with Howard out, this team has galvanized and now play for each other. Which is probably a big reason why they rallied from a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 81-77.

But the biggest reason the Magic won is that the Pacers looked like they took this game, and possibly even the whole series, for granted. Indiana was outscored 11-0 in the game’s final minutes and they blew their lead and the game. Nobody could hit a shot, the offense went stagnant and they left shooters like Jason Richardson wide open. But worst of all was Danny Granger completely falling apart. I picked Granger as a top player to watch in the playoffs this year as he became the driving force behind a hot Pacers squad. But when his team needed him most, he not only disappeared, he actually made them worse. He couldn’t get shots close to the rim to go, he missed two critical free throws, he had two terrible turnovers at the worst possible times (a backcourt violation and a travel with the game on the line) and none of this would have been completely terrible if he didn’t look completely timid and indecisive the whole time. Granger turned into a deer in the headlights during the entire fourth quarter, especially when Orlando started to make its run.

Glen Davis outplayed Roy Hibbert as the Magic shocked the Pacers at home.

The Pacers need Granger to score more than 17 points a game, especially when Leandro Barbosa and Roy Hibbert score a combined 11 points. Hibbert has a ridiculous size advantage on Glen Davis and Ryan Anderson, so scoring 8 points is absolutely pathetic, especially when you throw in the fact that Davis pushed him around all game and the Pacers barely won the rebound battle, 35-34. Hibbert absolutely needs to regroup and come out with a vengeance in Game 2, regardless of his 9 blocks. In fact, David West is the only player on the Pacers who looked okay, but he disappeared down the stretch too. Paul George missed critical wide open 3-pointers down the stretch and George Hill didn’t have much of an impact after looking so impressive when he was moved into the starting lineup. But even with everyone else disappearing, the majority of the blame should still be placed on Danny Granger for this awful performance. Until Granger learns how to take control and be a crunch-time player in close games, the Pacers will never be the dark horse in the East they could be.

Granted, the Magic did have to play exceptionally well to get the win. Jason Richardson hit five 3-pointers, which doesn’t happen every day. The entire Pacers team had to completely collapse and miss all of their shots over the last few minutes for Orlando to have a chance to come back. And while Orlando’s heart in playing for each other and for their coach to defy everyone’s expectations is inspiring, I can’t say with certainty that this team can play at this level over the course of a seven-game series. The Pacers shot 34.5 percent from the floor and finished with 77 points. The Magic only scored 81 points. This was Indiana’s game to lose and they lost it in extremely underwhelming fashion. But I don’t think any of these things will happen again. So even though my prediction that the Pacers would sweep looks pretty bad right now, I’m still picking Indiana to win the series in 5 or 6 games. But they’re definitely on upset alert right now.

If this shot was in the 4th quarter, Granger probably missed it. Indiana can't afford for him to disappear.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The 2012 NBA Playoffs kick off tomorrow morning so that means it’s time to break down the first round matchups. I gave my Western Conference playoff predictions earlier today, so now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. Here are my picks:

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers – A few weeks ago, the Bulls were the best team in the league (even without Derrick Rose on the court) and looked like favorites to contend for the East. Now I’m not as confident. Because while Chicago has locked up the top spot and faces a paltry Sixers team, chemistry between their starters could be an issue. A myriad of injury problems for Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng has prevented this Bulls team from truly gelling over the course of the season and the last few game not enough time to do so for the postseason. Fortunately, they’re up against Philly in the first round, who can’t score to save their lives. Andre Iguodala was showing signs of life before slipping back into lower numbers, and Lou Williams and Elton Brand are too inconsistent. Then you throw in Evan Turner’s comments about matching up better with the Bulls and you’ve got a motivated Chicago team. The fact is, Philadelphia is not the same team that convincingly beat Chicago back on February 1. The Bulls have beaten the Sixers twice since then and the only thing that will stop them from sweeping this series is the chemistry issue.

Prediction: Chicago in 5 games

Can Derrick Rose stay healthy and get the Bulls to the second round? I say yes.

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks – Believe it or not, this could shape up to be the best first round playoff series in the NBA this year. The Knicks will probably fall short and they might not even make it a competitive series, but with the way LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have been playing this month, we’re going to be treated to at least one high-octane scoring battle between these two superstars. Without Jeremy Lin back and with Amare Stoudemire still trying to get fully acclimated, the Knicks don’t have a good shot of winning this series. Unless Melo goes absolutely bonkers and drops 45 a game, the talent of Miami’s big three will eventually overpower New York, but not without a scare or two. Madison Square Garden is a tough place to play when the Knicks are good and with Miami in town, you can bet those fans are going to make it as tough on the Heat as possible. The Knicks have a small advantage in their supporting cast (if only because Miami’s is so terrible), meaning that if J.R. Smith and Steve Novak can knock down some threes, this series could stay competitive. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are also dealing with minor injuries, so if those develop into anything serious, this series could get ugly pretty quick for Miami. Fortunately, LeBron James is finally embracing his role as the Heat’s alpha dog, so it’s tough to bet against Miami here.

Prediction: Miami in 6 games

Probably the marquee matchup of the first round: LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony.

#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Orlando Magic – When you pair one of the hottest teams in the East up against the easiest first-round opponent in the playoffs, you get a pretty one-sided series. Orlando will really miss Dwight Howard not only in stopping Indiana’s penetration, but also in handling Roy Hibbert. The Pacers have won 12 of their last 15 and while Glen Davis has put up decent numbers as the man in the middle, the defensive impact of losing Howard will prevent them from giving this hot Indiana team any problems. The Magic might win a game at home because of the pride they have in playing together under Stan Van Gundy (especially after all that Howard has put them through this season), but the Pacers could potentially sweep here. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson really won’t be enough, especially now that Danny Granger is a true leader in Indiana. Then you throw in that Hibbert and David West are playing well, along with Paul George and George Hill stepping up their game. Finally, with Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench, Orlando doesn’t have a great chance of winning more than one game, and the game they do win would be out of pride and as a bi-product of the Pacers’ youth.

Prediction: Indiana in 4 games

Nobody gives Danny Granger and the Pacers love. Is it their time?

#4 Boston Celtics vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks – Every year we see Boston get a little bit older and we see a Hawks team that should be getting better, but really doesn’t improve much. Atlanta has been a force in the East for years now, but just can’t quite get over the hump to contender status. Meanwhile, the Celtics know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and are entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the East. They’ve been faced with adversity all year: at the beginning of the season, they were old and washed up; Rajon Rondo was reported as being a cancer in Boston’s locker room; there were talks of trading Rondo and possibly even breaking up the big three. But somehow the Celts defied expectations and rallied to reclaim the Atlantic division title and the four seed that went with it. Their confidence and team unity gives them a big edge over the Hawks, who are entirely dependent on Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. With Al Horford still sidelined, Atlanta will need Jeff Teague, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Kirk Hinrich to consistently score. I don’t see that happening, especially considering Boston’s stifling interior defense. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo usually perform well in the playoffs, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will come to play and without home-court advantage, the Hawks don’t have much of a chance.

Prediction: Boston in 6 games

Paul Pierce and Josh Smith will put up big numbers, but the Celtics have a better all-around team along with home-court advantage.

Dwight Howard’s 2011-12 Season

Dwight Howard’s year started off and for awhile, it looked like it would be a memorable one. Superman had the Magic at the third spot in the East despite carrying a lackluster supporting cast night in and night out. But Howard’s potential MVP season went downhill pretty quick and will forever be scarred in history by a season-long drama that culminated with yesterday’s announcement that he will miss the remainder of the regular season and the entire playoffs for the Magic. The herniated disk in Howard’s back will require surgery and sideline him from contact drills for four months, meaning he’ll be back next season in full health. But after a tumultuous season full of flip-flopping, behind-the-scenes moves, rumors and apparent backstabbing, should Orlando even want him back?

Dwight Howard put his city through hell this season, but Orlando’s been in an uncomfortable position ever since Howard announced he was unhappy there with Stan Van Gundy. Then management started catering to his every whim in order to appease their spoiled but lovable superstar. They brought in Glen Davis and Gilbert Arenas last year to make him happy, shipping off the now-valuable Brandon Bass to Boston. They most likely bent over backwards before the trade deadline this year to try and bring someone else in to appease Superman. They allegedly told him he’d have managerial powers beyond that of a player, effectively being able to decide the fate of both Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith at the end of the season. Ever since Howard made his discontent and desire to be traded known to the public, Magic management has has done everything but appoint him as head coach and GM in order to get him to stay. Which is still not guaranteed. Enough is enough.

Now I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Blame Howard!” bandwagon when the Magic’s season first started to take a turn for the worse. I didn’t think he was faking his injury or using it as a form of protest after Van Gundy publicly threw him under the bus. Yesterday’s report describing the severity of his injury should prove those rumors to be false. I still don’t know for sure whether or not Howard has to power to decide the fate of Orlando’s head coach and GM. And I understand Howard’s frustration with his team and his coach. If you were a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, would you want to play for the sarcastic Van Gundy surrounded by a bunch of role players who most likely wouldn’t even start for some of the better teams in the league? J.J. Reddick, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and even Ryan Anderson are all quality role players and outside shooters at times, but those aren’t the players you build a championship team around. So everyone should ease up off of Dwight Howard a little bit. But it’s just a bit, and that bit ends there.

Howard played through the pain and made his back worse to prove to his team that he wasn't quitting on them. That's gotta be worth something.

What we’ve seen from Howard this season has been downright despicable at times. This isn’t the kind of behavior you want to see out of any player on your team, let alone your franchise star. Howard has vehemently denied his involvement in management, he’s denied that he wants Van Gundy gone, he’s denied that he quit on his team and he’s denied that his injury was just an excuse to spite his coach and his teams with all the rumors swirling around him. But Howard is guilty of leaving an entire organization and fan base hanging. He is guilty of flaking back and forth between staying and leaving on the day of the trade deadline. He may be guilty of trying to usurp his head coach who helped develop him into the defensive juggernaut he has become. And while his performance on the court says otherwise, his off-the-court actions, “roll the dice” comments and overall lack of commitment to the city that’s given him so much is just as good as quitting on his team, his fans, his coach and his city. Howard doesn’t understand that he can put up 30 points and 20 rebounds every night for his team, but it won’t make him a team player or a franchise star worth remembering if he’s doing it while looking into where he can play next season.

I think there are a lot of people to blame in this season of melodrama between Dwight Howard and Van Gundy. Howard shouldn’t be orchestrating these managerial moves behind closed doors if he is, just like Van Gundy shouldn’t have said what he said to throw his star player under the bus. You can say all you want about how “that’s just how Van Gundy is” and how he just wants everything to be out in the open, but there are some things you should keep within the family. Telling reporters that Superman wanted him gone was a huge mistake that broke this story open again.

When reports surfaced Thursday morning that Howard wouldn’t play anymore for Stan Van Gundy, I didn’t know what to think. I hesitated on writing about it or passing out judgement until the full story was revealed, and thankfully, Howard furiously denied the latest rumors again and the real report that he required season-ending surgery on his back came out. Never mind the fact that his back got a lot worse because he played through the injury, which happened after people questioned his dedication to his team and the game with that mailed-in performance (the day Van Gundy called him out). Never mind that before all the trade deadline drama and Van Gundy’s foolish mistake, the Magic were playing pretty well behind a terrific season from Howard that deserved MVP consideration. I think that Howard tarnished his legacy in both Orlando and the NBA this season. Some of what ruined his reputation is fair and he should bare the blame for the things he did wrong, but there are some things that Van Gundy and Orlando’s management should have handled better that are unfairly placed on Superman. It will be interesting to see where Van Gundy and Howard end up next season, but for now, blame Dwight for what Dwight did and don’t buy into the rumors until the full story is unveiled. Because things are way too political and deceptive down in Orlando right now to know fact from fiction. Orlando fans should want Dwight Howard back, even if he’s on thin ice. Given the choice between Howard and Van Gundy, they’d be foolish not to pick Howard. But one thing is for sure: lf Dwight Howard is in an Orlando Magic uniform next year, he’s going to have to bust his ass to move up from Clark Kent to Superman again.

Howard's 2011-12 season will be forever stained by all the drama and flip-flopping. But Magic fans should want him back if he's committed to winning for them again. We'll have to wait it out to see.