After a short while no longer will the Atlantic Division be looked upon as the JV League. That short while may just end up being this year. For instance, four 20-point scorers from the West have migrated to the East: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Rashard Lewis and Zach Randolph. The first three went via the trade route and Lewis as a free agent to the Orlando Magic. Consequently, no one in their right basketball mind should even suggest that the Northwest Division featuring the likes of the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and the lottery bound Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Sonics are better overall than any of the divisions in the Eastern Conference. Here’s a crystal ball on the upcoming season.
The Atlantic Division will no longer be the Little Sister’s of the Poor and Brokenhearted anymore; that’s for sure. Barring injuries to any of the newly acquired gunslingers and high octane scores, the AD should be fun for a while, not to mention very competitive.
1. CELTICS: The glory days in Bean Town may return with the newest addition of the Big Three with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining the likes of Paul Pierce to formulate what should constitute a very potent offensive attack. The bench or lack thereof may be a cause for concern however.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: The Big Three; Three the Hard Way; Three Times the Charm or 3 Mass or whatever you want to call them.
Sleeper to Watch: Glen “Big Baby” Davis
2. RAPTORS: The Raptors came from oblivion to surprise the NBA with a first place finish in the Atlantic and did Canada proud as well. Well, the Division is quite tougher now and the Raptors aren’t a surprise anymore. Barring an injury, they should still be a first round and out playoff team.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Carlos Delfino and Jason Kapono
Sleeper to Watch: Andrea Bargnani
3. NETS: New Jersey’s version of the Big Three is Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Kidd is getting older but he seems to still be getting better. The Nets want to cut down his minutes but how can they when the backups seem to always either go down with injurys or they’re just not good backups to start with. A healthy return to form in Nenad Kristic will make matter run rather smoothly also.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Jamaal Magloire/Darrell Armstrong
Sleeper to Watch: Antoine Wright
4. KNICKS: Trouble or drama always seems to find its way to MSG (Madison Square Garden), the place where the Knicks play their home games. I could be the coach, the players or even the owners. But, there’s no denying this years’ version with the addition of Zach Randolph and his 23 points per game and 10 plus rebounds per game. Will he be able to stay out of trouble is a big question.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Zach Randolph
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Wilson Chandler
5. SIXERS: The boys from Philly have the least talented team in the Division but they have arguably the second best point guard in the Division in last year’s trade acquisition Andre Miller, who runs the show impeccably. Some say that the Sixers became more of a team once Allen Iverson left. Burning question though is: Can their big guy Samuel Dalembert stay healthy for a long period of time? That is a cause of concern.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Shavlik Randolph
Sleeper to Watch: Louis Williams
The Central Division has had a representative in the NBA Finals three times in the last five years. Will the Chicago Bulls make it back to the land of glory this year for the first time since His Airness retired?
1. PISTONS: The regular season has been pretty sweet for the Boys from Motown. It’s the winning of the whole enchilada that has been the problem; and this despite numerous visits to the playoffs and Conference Final appearances. Will the infusion of young talent make the difference?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: A trimmed down and healthy Rasheed Wallace
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Rodney Stuckey
2. BULLS: The Bulls, despite not having a true low post presence, appear to be onto something special. And that is with or without Kobe Bryant to whom the Bulls are a preferred team to be traded to.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Joakim Noah/Joe Smith
Sleeper to Watch: Tyrus Thomas
3. BUCKS: This Milwaukee team resembled a MASH unit last season. Few teams in the NBA had as many injuries to key personnel as the Bucks. With everyone back and with a new coach in Larry Krystkowiak given a full training camp, this team will surprise a lot of people.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Rookie Yi Jianlian/Desmond Mason
Sleeper to Watch: Andrew Bogut
4. CAVALIERS: The James Gang made it to the NBA Finals in an upset over the Pistons. But, with the unsigned core players in Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic from last years squad, depth and chemistry may be a major cause for concern.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Larry Hughes if he’s healthy
Sleeper to Watch: Daniel Gibson
5. PACERS: This franchise seems to always have some sort of turmoil with its players (off the court). There is talent however; it’s just a matter of who stays and who goes. Will Jermaine O’Neal force a trade or if he stays, will he remain healthy for a better part of the season?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Mike Dunleavy Jr./Troy Murphy
Sleeper to Watch: Ike Diogu
The Southeast Division high-flyers and scores aplenty; but it also seems to have the teams with the worst cases of the injury bug to their prime time players too. Are they healthy enough to be forces again remains to be seen.
1. MAGIC: Jeff’s brother Stan Van Gundy took the Orlando job just after University of Florida coach Billy Donovan accepted and then passed on it. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the team where Mickey Mouse lives. Why? Because historically no matter how successful a coach in college was it didn’t translate to the same in the NBA.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Rashard Lewis
Sleeper to Watch: JJ Redick
2. WIZARDS: One mustn’t forget that for the first half of the season the Wiz was the dominant team in the East. So much so that Coach Eddie Jordan was awarded as the head coach for last season’s All-Star game in Vegas. But, after that the team turned into another version of a MASH unit. The question now: Are their stars fully recovered from their season ending injuries?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Healthy Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Nick Young
3. HEAT: The Miami guys are getting older and more brittle before our very eyes. Shaq is said to be in terrific shape while Dwayne Wade is still on the injured list. The Heat had made a significant move to improve the roster until recently. Let’s just see if that move doesn’t backfire.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Ricky Davis
Sleeper to Watch: Udonis Haslem
4. HAWKS: These young flying birds from Atlanta are tired of missing the playoff party. The team is vastly improved and its athletism is off the charts overall; but will that be enough to push the team over the hump and thus save head coach Mike Woodson’s job?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Al Horford/A.C. Law
Sleeper to Watch: Josh Smith, who was not extended a contract and Marvin Williams, who more than likely came out a year or two too soon out of the University of North Carolina.
5. BOBCATS: The team that Michael Jordan bought into and built has been decimated by injuries. Stud center Emeka Okafor hasn’t played an injury free season yet and the Bobcats just lost Adam Morrison and Sean May to season ending leg injuries.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Jason Richardson
Sleeper to Watch: Matt Carroll
Eastern Conference Winner: Detroit Pistons
Watch out Western Conference you’ve already lost four 20 point scorers (in Kevin Garnett, Zach Randolph, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and another scorer deluxe in Jason Richardson who was traded on draft night from the Golden State Warriors to the Charlotte Bobcats. And word on the street is that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls are in heavy discussion with the Bulls on a Kobe trade. Well if that indeed does happen at worst at least the All-Star games will be a lot more interesting.
This Division pound for pound is undoubtedly the strongest in the entire League. From top to bottom, from side to side and even from edge-wise to the middle. However you want to slice it, the SD can have all of its teams vying for playoff spots. The top three a locks but the bottom two isn’t any walk in the park either.
1. SPURS: Last years’ NBA Champs are still intact and primed for another run at it. They may start off to a slow start but when it’s all said and done, the Spurs will win the Division and get ready for another dog fight. Then it will be business as usual.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Ime Udoka
Sleeper to Watch: Darius Washington (who learned the hard way that he should have stayed at the University of Memphis a little while longer to hone his skills)
2. MAVERICKS: No one knows for sure and that includes the Mavs themselves how they’re going to react after last season first round flame out to the Golden State Warriors. Will the end of last season make them hungrier or leave them shell shocked?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Eddie Jones
Sleeper to Watch: Maurice Ager
3. ROCKETS: This team is rather confusing. They always seem to make the playoffs but they never get out of the first round despite their immense talent in two franchise players: Yao Ming and Tracey McGrady. To make matters even all the more head scratch worthy is the drafting of a point guard, (Oregon’s Aaron Brooks) the trading of another point guard (Mike James from the T-wolves) and the signing of yet another point guard (bring back Steve Francis). This is after they already had: Rafer Alston, Luther Head and John Lucas III.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Luis Scola
Sleeper to Watch: Bonzi Wells (who gets reacquainted with new head coach Rick Adelman)
4. HORNETS: The team is finally resettled back into New Orleans after the devastating affects of Hurricane Katrina. But, the team had lost of love from the city and folk from Oklahoma. Only time will tell if that indeed was the right move to make.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Peja Stojakovic (who played in only 13 games last year), Morris Peterson
Sleeper to Watch: Hilton Armstrong
5. GRIZZLIES: The Kids from Graceland country have a new coach (Marc Iavaroni) a new GM (Chris Wallace from the front office of the Boston Celtics) and a new system. Will that turn into a new attitude and a lot more wins?
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Mike Conley Jr.
Sleeper to Watch: Tarence Kinsey
This Division gives the Eastern Conference confidence in the worst way. The only thing that will be of any interest is the first place race between the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. The other three teams are bottom feeders. Portland won the Lottery with the pick of the litter in Greg Oden only to have lost him for the season with a knee injury. The Sonics boost Kevin Durant, but he being only 19 years old and still with a frail body isn’t expected to lead them to the promise land just yet. And the T-wolves will be just plain bad with the trading of KG to the Celts for a bunch of kids.
1. NUGGETS: With a full year of Allen Iverson and the steady stardom of Carmelo Anthony, the sky is the limit for this bunch. The Nuggets may in fact have the deepest front court in the league.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Kenyon Martin (who is said to be fully recovered from his micro-fracture surgery and has regained the bounce in his step he once had)
Sleeper to Watch: Yakhouba Diawara
2. JAZZ: Jerry Sloan the returns for his 19th season at the helm of the Jazz. It certainly seems that his system does work. His bread and butter style (the pick and roll) has made both Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer the second coming of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Ronnie Brewer
Sleeper to Watch: Paul Millsap
3. TRAIL BLAZERS: Portland must be thinking, ‘is this going to be Sam Bowie all over again?’ Well a skeptic would think so (and rightfully so) given Oden’s recent medical history. But, on the flip side once he does get healthy and he’s able to stay that way, watch out. Last season’s Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy is the goods and LaMarcus Aldridge doesn’t seem to be too far behind. There is a future in The Great Northwest.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Channing Frye
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Taurean Green
4. SONICS: Talk about a great consolation prize! Yikes! Some would even go on to say that the Sonics got the better of the two picks although they picked second. Well, only time will tell but it will be great to see these two young giants going at it for the next ten or so years. The only draw back is they play out West where the games start at 10 or 10:30 EST.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Rookie Kevin Durant/Kurt Thomas
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Jeff Green
5. TIMBERWOLVES: If only GM Kevin McHale’s Boston glory days as a player would translate into a real GM that made great moves like he made in the paint, the citizens of Minnesota would have more to cheer about. KG was finally traded and now the pressure will really be on McHale to make sure he makes the future worth looking forward to.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Al Jefferson/Rookie Corey Brewer (and half of the squad that came in the KG trade)
Sleeper to Watch: Sebastian Telfair
The Pac Division used to be the darling of the NBA back in the day. Now, it’s just another division that features a couple of playoff capable teams. Will Kobe be a part of it at the end of the season? All signs point to that not being the case so the talent level will really sink down further.
1. SUNS: Last years bitter lose to the Spurs should leave a bad taste in Phoenix’s mouth. Especially when you consider the fact that they had the home court advantage going in. But, with Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw getting suspended for Game Five for leaving the bench area during an altercation and thus losing in six games, they should be healthier and hungrier from start to finish.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Grant Hill
Sleeper to Watch: DJ Strawberry
2. WARRIORS: This team is extremely explosive. Their high octane offense rivals that of the Suns. With a healthy and happy Baron Davis, the sky is the limit. The big question will be if Stephen Jackson, who became a team captain, can live up to the responsibility on and off the court.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Rookie Marco Belinelli
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Brandan Wright
3. CLIPPERS: In the battle of the Staples Center where both the Lakers and Clippers play, the Clips are becoming the favorites. And with the Lakers becoming the New York Knicks west with all of the controversy in recent years from the star player in Kobe (the situation in Denver a couple of years ago) to the owner being cited for drunken driving recently, the Clippers can become a real staple in Staples if they play their hand right. But, with the Corey Maggette and head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. marriage on the rocks, you still never know. The loss of Elton Brand could be minimized with stellar play from their big guys.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Rookie Al Thornton
Sleeper to Watch: Dan Dickau
4. LAKERS: Who knows what’s going to happen in LaLa Land from one day to the next. There is still talent there but is it ‘going to the NBA Finals’ talent? No! And that is with Kobe still on the roster. However, a healthy Lamar Odom and an emerging Andrew Bynum would certainly make a lot of other teams bigger and better.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Derek Fisher
Sleeper to Watch: Jordan Farmar
5. KINGS: There’s a next sheriff in town and his name is Reggie Theus. Yes, that Reggie Theus. The Kings have talent but it’s troublesome to some degree. Ron Artest is in the process of fighting a seven game suspension handed to him for his domestic dispute with his wife and Mike Bibby, who is always the subject of trade rumors, is lost for six to eight weeks following thumb surgery.
Key Newcomer/Difference Maker: Mikki Moore
Sleeper to Watch: Rookie Spencer Hawes
Western Conference Winner and NBA Finals champion: Phoenix Suns