If the West was a mind-blowing trip through the pastiche of day-glo psychedelia, the East is a can of Pabst and a shot of Wild Turkey. The mantra here is de-fense, de-fense and is personified by the collection of journeymen players turned coaches such as Scott Skiles, Sam Mitchell and new Pistons head man, Michael Curry.
For the last decade, the East has not been able to match the glitz of the left coast, but there is evidence that the tide is beginning to turn. Shawn Marion, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Mike Bibby, Elton Brand, Jason Richardson and, of course, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have all switched conferences in the last year.
The two best prospects in the draft, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley, reside in the East and the best rookie from last year—Rookie of the Year vote notwithstanding—was Atlanta’s Al Horford. Young stars like Dwight Howard and Josh Smith abound, and while the pendulum hasn’t swung all the way yet, the needle is moving.
With the exception of Philadelphia—and really, how fun is a renewed Celtics-Sixers rivalry going to be?—the East remains mostly unchanged from last season. The big moves were made at the bottom, most with an eye on 2010, when free agency Armageddon will reign.
We begin our countdown down with the champs:
1. Boston Celtics: Winning a championship is hard. Repeating is harder. About an hour after the Celtics finished off the Lakers, I was talking to a friend of mine, a hard-bitten columnist from another town. I told him that the remarkable thing about the Celtics was that there was no reported signs of disharmony throughout the whole season. He arched his brow and said, “That’s for next year.”
There have been many one-hit wonders that hummed Kumbaya one year and then dissolved into a mess of dissension the next. (See: Heat, Miami for a recent example.) Due to the veteran makeup of the roster and the steady hand of Doc Rivers, the Celtics seem to be, if not immune from the post-championship malaise, then well-equipped to handle the mental grind.
When the biggest questions in camp are about the bench depth, you know things are pretty solid. Throughout October it was obvious that the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen troika was intent on teaching the Celtics Way to the new converts. As good as the Celtics are, they can’t take short-cuts. And, more importantly, they know that.
The on-court question for the Celtics is which team are they? Are they the group that went 29-3 and threatened to break every record in the league, or are they the one that went 37-13 thereafter (very good, but not necessarily great, in other words)? Are they the team that went seven games against the Hawks and Cavs, or are they the one that recorded staggering comebacks against Detroit and L.A. and beat the Lakers by 39 points in Game 6?
The Celtics have had a year to figure things out, and assuming they are closer to the 29-3 version, they should be primed to take their place among history’s great teams.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: The semifinals were not an aberration. The Cavs were the best team the Celtics played in the playoffs, and it wasn’t just because of LeBron James. It was defense. But what has held Cleveland back has been an over-reliance on King James and an offensive game plan straight out of the 90’s sludge-ball era.
New point guard Mo Williams is supposed to alleviate some of that, but Williams is one of those players who is best with the ball in his hands, and that skill is not needed here. What the Cavs need is a creator, and if Williams can tweak his game and provide that then they can be scary good.
They have shooters, rebounders and depth, and they have a player in James who is ready to take over the league. The LeBron Watch officially began this offseason with his cryptic comments about New York being his favorite city and the Knicks and Nets all but taking out billboards saying, “Come to us, Bron-Bron.” Next year will be one giant distraction. This is the year for them to make their move before the circus comes to town.
3. Detroit Pistons: This has a last days of Pompeii feel to it. About two seconds after losing to the Celtics, Joe Dumars announced there would be major changes. He then signed Kwame Brown and fired Flip Saunders. That's not change we can believe in, Joe.
The players decided to blame Flip for everything, but honestly, their failed playoff runs are on them. The long-awaited breakup of the Pistons has taken about as long as it took Axl Rose to finish Chinese Democracy, and all signs point to this being the last stand for Deee-Troit Basket-ballll.
4. Orlando Magic: In my rambling Western Conference preview I mistakenly referred to Greg Oden as being the best center prospect since Tim Duncan. I forgot, obviously, about Dwight Howard. Maybe it’s because he plays in the shadow of Epcot, or maybe it’s because he’s kind of a goofball, but that seems to be Howard’s lot in life.
The question for the Magic is the backcourt where my guy, Jameer Nelson, gets a lot of blame for not being tall enough to ride a roller-coaster. I covered Jameer from the time he was a freshman at Saint Joseph’s, and I’ve never met a nicer kid. Phil Martelli, the ever-quotable Hawks coach, tells a great story about scouting Jameer in high school and how he watched him dominate a state playoff game without ever taking a shot. There’s not really a point to this digression, I just wanted to share.
The Magic have a lot of things going for it (them? Copy-editors hate the Magic, Heat, Thunder, etc.), but until Howard takes his game to that next level, as the TV announcers like to say, good, but not good enough, is where they will stay.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: Longtime readers of Boston Daily know that I spent the majority of my 20s in Philly. (Celtics beat writers take note: Dirty Frank’s on 13th and Pine is a great dive bar. Guaranteed someone will play “Rosalita” between 11 and midnight and everyone will sing the chorus, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
It was there that I cut my NBA teeth covering the Larry Brown/AI/Pat Croce era, which was never dull. Some days Larry would talk about how much he loved Allen, and five minutes later he’d be cursing him out. Iverson would show up 35 minutes before tip-off and go out and score 47 points. Just for kicks, Croce might decide to climb the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson were filming Unbreakable and were in the building nightly. Bruce Hornsby showed up one night to sing the National Anthem. Turns out he and Iverson were good friends. Who knew? Those were good times.
The Iverson Thing hung over the franchise for years, and Bostonians who wonder why their city is the only one that has messy break-ups with their superstars should take note: It happens everywhere. It only took the Sixers a year and a half to get back in the game, and the addition of Elton Brand looks like a genius move.
It will be interesting to see how a young team that made its bones running will take to having a low-post option. These things tend to be more complicated than they first appear, but Brand does seem like the perfect fit. Celtics fans should be marking their calendars.
6. Toronto Raptors: What to make of the Raptors? Chris Bosh is good. Jose Calderon is really good. Jamario Moon has a great name. Jermaine O’Neal? Huh. Everyone is talking about a rejuvenated O’Neal, but the first rule of sports physics is: Players in their 30s who break down tend to stay broken down.
As it is the Raptors are just good enough to be a major headache most nights, but probably not good enough to crack the 50-win barrier.
7. Washington Wizards—I thought about putting Atlanta here, but then I realized that I could match up the Cavs and Wiz in the first round, and I’m dying to see I Can’t Feel My Face II: The Return of DeShawn.
Hey, it’s my preview.
Seriously, and there is nothing remotely serious about the Wizards, is there a more fun team in the NBA? WEEI.com contributor Will Leitch posed in his book—God Save The Fan, go buy a copy now!—that Gilbert Arenas was more important than LeBron James, the theory being that if any of us had the ridiculous good fortune to be as good as Agent Zero we’d act pretty much the same way. Which is to say, crazy, but the good kind of crazy.
Sadly, Arenas is out for the first few months. What does all this mean in a basketball context? I have no idea, but with the Wiz, the games are just what they do between blog posts.
8. Atlanta Hawks: So, who do you figure will get booed more: Mike Bibby or Zaza Pachulia?
It got kind of lost, but that pick that Kevin Garnett laid on Zaza in the seventh game of the playoffs was a truly amazing play. The only sports equivalent that comes to mind is if a batter drops down a bunt down the first-base line so as to throw a shoulder into the pitcher fielding the ball. Your move, Zaza.
The Hawks got a lot mileage out of that seven-game series but then they went and lost Josh Childress to a Greek team of all things, which sort of sums up the dysfunctional way they do business down there. Still, assuming Josh Smith stops trying to audition for the 3-point shooting contest, there’s no reason why Atlanta can’t make a small jump in the W-L column.
9. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls could have had Kevin Garnett. They should have had Kevin Garnett. They would not be ninth if they did have Kevin Garnett. But they do have Drew Gooden. So they’re ninth. (Note: Not entirely Gooden’s fault. How can you pick on a guy with a soul patch on the back of his head?)
10. Milwaukee Bucks: Every year I pick a down-market team to follow. Last year it was Charlotte (I’m a sucker for Marxist forwards from Gonzaga, I guess). This year I’m going with the Bucks for two reasons:
A. Scott Skiles will make them play defense. Skiles is like the boss that you know is going to make you stay late. You hate him for it, but you know he’s got a point. You also know he’ll piss off Maggie in H.R. in a few years and get fired for reasons of “workplace harmony,” but he’s here now so you better suck it up.
B. Joe Alexander was my favorite college basketball player last year, and he lived in China for a while, which fulfills the fringy Commie connection.
You got better reasons to care about the Bucks?
11. Indiana Pacers: In Almost Famous, Lester Bangs (as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks the kid writer if he’s the star of his school. No, he says, they all hate me. “Well, you’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.” When he gets there he should say hi to the Indiana Pacers.
They’re the Sacramento Kings of the Eastern Conference.
12. New Jersey Nets: LeBron in 2010!
13. Charlotte Bobcats: My favorite draft bust aside, maybe there’s hope for the Bobcats. Maybe Larry Brown will rediscover his coaching mojo in this, his 10th job in professional basketball. (Really, he’s coached 10 different professional basketball teams, counting the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, of course.)
Maybe Sean May will stay healthy. Maybe Emeka Okafor will develop range beyond five feet. Maybe Gerald Wallace will stop jacking 3’s.
Maybe I’ll finally get to hang out with Bill Walton, but I wouldn’t count on any of it.
14. Miami Heatz: Last year during the playoffs, I was chatting with P.J. Brown and Ray Allen decided to come by and join the conversation. I’m not name-dropping here. I bring it up because this has literally never happened to me covering pro sports. Anyway, we started talking about Derrick Coleman. Both P.J. and Ray decided that D.C. was the most talented player they had ever been around.
Michael Beasley is Derrick Coleman. Now, whether he becomes good Derrick or whoop-de-damn-do Derrick is entirely open for debate. South Beach beckons with its siren song. It sounds a lot like Beyonce, by the way.
On the plus side for the Heat, Dwyane Wade looks like he’s all the way back, which is great for the league, and Shawn Marion hasn’t been traded yet. On the negative side, there’s the small matter of the starting point guard and center.
15. New York Knicks: In the Western preview I lamented the passing of the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix. So let’s see how things are playing out in the Big Apple now that Mike D’Antoni is calling the shots.
Hmmm, it seems Eddy “Effort is a funny thing” Curry showed up out of shape and is already out of the starting lineup. And rookie Danilo Gallinari has a bad back. And it looks like Jamal Crawford is already in the doghouse. And, holy crap, Stephon Marbury was playing small forward. So, everything’s going swimmingly, basically.
You think D’Antoni keeps a calendar counting down the days until Steve Nash becomes a free agent?
On to the playoff prediction portion of the preview. Alliteration rules. We’ll go chalk in the first round, except for the Sixers taking out Orlando, setting up a tasty second-round matchup with the Celtics.
That takes us to the C’s and Cavs in the conference finals, where an epic seven-game series awaits.
All of which will set up a dream NBA Finals for basketball purists (not so much for ABC) between Boston and San Antonio. KG vs. Duncan, Rondo vs. Parker, Pierce vs. Bowen. Ray vs. Manu. Kurt Thomas and Kendrick Perkins throwing each other into the third row. It’s almost too good to hope for.
The pick: Celtics in six.
And if I’m wrong, I’ll drink a can of Pabst with a shot of Wild Turkey while listening to Morrison Hotel. Both sides.
Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for WEEI.com.