It may not be the most promising of years ahead in Raptorland, but we’ve got a season to play nonetheless. With Toronto set to tip its schedule tonight at home against the Knicks, here’s a look at my 2010-11 Eastern Conference forecast:
1. Miami (68-14): The question isn’t whether or not Miami will be great — it’s whether they’ll be historically great. Last night’s season opener in Boston might as well be thrown out the window, because once LeBron, Wade and Bosh put in their time in together (keep in mind, Wade played only three preseason minutes) it’ll be a sight to see. Superstars aside, the Heat did a nice job filling out the supporting roles, adding Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mike Miller, Eddie House and re-signing Udonis Haslem to strenghthen the second unit.
2. Orlando (55-27): The Magic cruised to the Eastern Conference Finals last year before a playoff-savvy Celtics squad came along and put any of Dwight Howard’s title dreams to bed, winning the first three games before eventually taking it in six. Orlando comes back with last year’s roster nearly in tact, save for the additions of Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon and the subtraction of Matt Barnes. Howard, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson should have the Magic rolling through the regular season and possibly to the East Finals again, where they’ll likely have to get through their cross-state rivals for a shot at it all.
3. Boston (52-30): Last night’s win against the Heat serves as notice that we’ll be seeing the Celtics team that showed up in last year’s playoffs, as opposed to the one that slumped to a .500 record the last half of the season or so. With the original Big Three a year older, Rajon Rondo will be leaned on even more to make noise, and expect the East’s best point guard to deliver. Down low, the O’Neal boys (Shaq and Jermaine) are in to fill the void left by Rasheed Wallace’s retirement and Kendrick Perkins’ ailing ACL, which should keep him sidelined until at least the new year. After breaking out in the postseason and with a full training camp under his belt, also expect more of a contribution from Little Nate Robinson in 2010-11.
4. Chicago (51-31): The Bulls lost out on the grand prize this off-season, but did mighty fine in loading up with Carlos Boozer and a handful of solid wings in Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. Look for Derrick Rose to make the jump to star status in his third season and for Joakim Noah, who averaged 11.0 boards and 1.56 blocks last season, to establish himself as an even more dominant defensive presence now that he’s healthy.
5. Atlanta (49-33): All the hype surrounding the Hawks fizzled with an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of Orlando in last year’s second round. Joe Johnson, who was invisible in the series, re-upped in the off-season, and will have to prove he’s capable of carrying Atlanta come playoff time. With Josh Smith and Al Horford still on the way up, he’ll figure to have less crunch time pressure in years to come.
6. Milwaukee (48-34): Anybody see that coming last year? With Michael Redd sidelined, that Bucks used a furious 29-12 run after the midway point to finish at 46-36, their best since Big Dog and Ray Allen’s glory days of 2000-01. Many will point to Brandon Jennings as the shot in the arm Milwaukee needed, but it was actually the deadline addition of John Salmons that got things up and running. The Bucks won 12 of their first 13 games with Salmons in the lineup and were 21-9 overall, getting 19.9 points per game from the swingman over that span. Salmons re-signed over the summer, and with a developing Jennings, a healthy Andrew Bogut and a spark off the bench in new addition Corey Maggette, the Bucks are in shape to push Chicago for the Central Division’s top spot.
7. Charlotte (42-40): The Bobcats got a boost in 2009-10 with the early-season acquisition of disgruntled Golden State guard Stephen Jackson, who came in and averaged 21.1 points to carry Charlotte to its first playoff appearance in its six-year history. Jackson and all-star Gerald Wallace give the Bobcats a nice one-two punch, but with little improvement elsewhere over the summer, it’ll take a miracle to get this team past the first round. With Raymond Felton landing in New York, third-year man D.J. Augustin and free agent pickup Shaun Livingston will likely split point guard duties until Livingston’s knee falls off.
8. New York (35-47): The Knicks got an alright consolation prize over the summer in the form of Amar’e Stoudemire, but they’re still Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony away from being anything close to a contender in the East. The pickup of Stoudemire resulted in quite the shakeup up front for New York, as all-star David Lee ended up being dealt to Golden State for a package highlighted by Anthony Randolph, who showed flashes of brilliance with the Warriors but was never able to break through Don Nelson’s thick wall of acceptance. With Felton also new in the mix and Danilo Gallinari still on the rise, the Knicks are likely to be improved and should slip into the playoffs with a low seed.
9. Philadelphia (34-48): Two years ago, Elton Brand signed a huge deal and was expected to join with Andre Iguodala to make Philly one of the East’s top teams. Now, with Brand’s deal already a flop and Iguodala looking incapable of carrying them, the Sixers find themselves flying a little below the playoff picture and nowhere close to hanging tough with the conference’s big boys. Evan Turner, who put up huge numbers across the board at Ohio State, will be tossed into the starting five after being selected second overall, but there’s question as to whether his game will translate well to the pros. He’ll get a shot to contribute this season, and alongside Iguodala, point guard Jrue Holliday and forward Thaddeus Young, helps form a young Philly core that will likely get classed to death by some of the league’s more experienced and talented teams.
10. Indiana (31-51): Danny Granger can score, but can he carry a winning team? So far, no. That said, he hasn’t had much help over the past few seasons, at least not until now. Darren Collison, who filled in with averages of 18.8 points and 9.1 rebounds when Chris Paul was injured last season in New Orleans, was picked up in a four-team deal that sent Troy Murphy packing and will get a shot to make a huge impact in Indiana. Seven-footer Roy Hibbert, who turned in averages of 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his second year in 2009-10, is coming off a big preseason and figures to make a bit of a difference for the Pacers, as well.
11. Toronto (28-54): It’s not looking good, and I even feel I’m being a little generous by putting the Raps this high. Chris Bosh is gone, and if the preseason is any indication, Andrea Bargnani is far from a reliable option as the focal point of the offense. Jose Calderon looked even worse than the 2009-10 version of himself, and appears slated to back up Jarrett Jack to start the season. Ed Davis, who was grabbed 13th overall with hopes of helping fill the void in the middle, will miss at least the first few weeks of the season while recovering from meniscus surgery. Yeah, there’s a lot to look forward to in Raptorland. On the bright side, though, it’s Oct. 27, and last I checked we’re a mere half game behind the Celtics for tops in the division.
12. Detroit (26-56): Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Pistons’ downfall started with the early-season Chauncey Billups-for-Allen Iverson deal in 2008-09 and turned into a disaster last offseason with the braindead signings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. The once-proud franchise slumped to a 27-55 mark last year, getting little in the way of consistency from their two high-priced additions, which came without surprise considering neither were known for that before coming to Detroit. Meanwhile, Richard Hamilton, who carried a balanced Pistons attack deep into the playoffs and to a championship in 2004, is stuck playing various roles week-to-week just trying to keep this ship afloat. Last year was ugly in Detroit, and this season figures to be no better.
13. New Jersey (25-57): Last year, I predicted a Nets team led by up-and-comers Brook Lopez and Devin Harris could push for a back-end playoff spot in the East. They responded by going 12-70, narrowly escaping the NBA’s worst-ever recond. I still do, however, like New Jersey’s young core, especially with the late-season development of Terrence Williams, who finished his rookie year with averages of 14.2 points, 6.8 boards and 5.3 assists over the final two months. Throw in rebounding machine Troy Murphy (who was picked up from Indiana in the Collison deal, with Courtney Lee heading to Houston), free agent acquistions Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar and rookie big man Derrick Favors, and the Nets have a shot at being one of the league’s most improved teams.
14. Cleveland (23-59): It sucks for them. Being from Toronto, we kind of know how it feels. Sure, we’ve never lost a LeBron James, but our city has had it’s shitload of devastating sports breakups. The King’s departure leaves the Cavaliers in shambles, with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams left to carry a cast of misfits that will push for the NBA’s worst record. The biggest benefiary of the collapse, at least statistics-wise, will likely be third-year big man J.J. Hickson who could average a double-double with minutes.
15. Washington (18-64): How did the Wizards not try with everything they had to void Gilbert Arenas’ contract after his latest and greatest bout with idiocy last season? John Wall will be fun to watch and should push for Rookie of the Year, but as long as Arenas is in town, this team is ticketed for the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Andray Blatche showed late in the year that he can score, but is nowhere near the type of big man that can make an impact of a winning team.