Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.

Boom Or Bust Season For 76ers

The revamped Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing enigma for those compiling their preseason previews and power-rankings. No team seems to have a higher ceiling—some have predicted that they’ll win the Atlantic division—or a lower floor, as others predict that they’ll fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Many people, myself included, while wanting to believe that the 76ers are going to be a major contender, see a team with the potential to self-destruct.

The reasons for believing that the 76ers are going to be a major player in the East are clear—and they begin and end with Andrew Bynum. Bynum, the NBA’s second best centre, is now the best centre in the Eastern Conference—it’s not even close. With Dwight Howard shipped off to the West, there is no one that opposing big-men, and coaches, should fear more.

Last season, an injury-free Bynum showed what he could do at both ends of the floor. His footwork and low-post game was the best it’s ever been, while his play down the stretch in games was extremely impressive—check out his percentages in the final minutes of close games.

Recently there’s been talk of teams like the Miami Heat opting for small-ball lineups—not needing to play a genuine centre— but Bynum’s presence on the 76ers may put a wrench in that idea. I love that LeBron James can guard all 5 positions, and sure, he may be able to guard makeshift centres like Kevin Garnett, but he isn’t guarding Bynum down low. No chance.

As well as the potential 25-12 monster that is Bynum, the 76ers should also be better at the point-guard position this year. Jrue Holiday had somewhat of a coming-out party last season, particularly against the Celtics in the playoffs. He should continue that upward trajectory this year.

And then there’s Evan Turner. The uber-talented former 2nd overall pick showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he presents numerous match-up problems at the 2-spot, with his size, quickness, and rebounding abilities. Doug Collins will be hoping that he takes his game to the next level this season.

Given the factors just listed, it’s entirely logical to assume that Philadelphia are a solid playoff team, however, there are an equal number of reasons why they might also unravel. Although the signing of Bynum undoubtedly improves them in the frontcourt, the loss of Andre Iguodala in that same trade makes the 76ers substantially weaker on the perimeter. Having just praised the attributes of Turner, it’s worth mentioning that at this stage of his career, he’s no Iguodala when it comes to perimeter defense.

Iguodala was a huge part of Philadelphia’s highly ranked defense last season, and his loss means that much of the onus will be placed on Turner. Turner’s expected to play minutes at the 3-spot this year; mitigating much of the match-up problems he poses playing at the 2. At the same time, new additions Jason Richardson and Nick Young, while adding an outside shooting presence for Philadelphia, aren’t exactly shutdown defenders—Young being a particular liability at that end of the floor.

Then there’s the issue of locker-room cohesion and harmony. Fairly or unfairly, Turner has a reputation for being a difficult player to deal with, while we all know about Nick Young’s history as a member of a Washington Wizard’s team that took dysfunction to a whole new level. But the biggest problem could be Bynum’s tendency to act like a petulant child.

Bynum may have put up monster stat-lines last year in L.A., but he was also a monster pain in the behind. Just ask Mike Brown. He sulked his way through games, refused to sit with teammates during timeouts, got ejected from games, and of course, jacked up that ill-advised three that resulted in his benching. With all that baggage, Doug Collins, a highly-strung individual, with a tendency to self-destruct when pushed by a volatile superstar, might not be the ideal coach for Bynum. Just read about Collins’ checkered history with Michael Jordan for a potential precedent.

Of course, there’s also the small issue that Bynum hasn’t even suited up for the 76ers yet in preseason. It might be hard to clash with Collins if he doesn’t even get on the court. Remember, last year was also unique in that Bynum managed to play a full season—something rare in his injury-riddled career. Bynum has struggled with knee problems all summer and underwent a platelet enrichment procedure in Germany. I would be a little nervous if I was a fan in Philly.

That the 76ers are talented is not in doubt. They have enough potential scoring in Bynum, Holiday, Turner, and Thaddeus Young, while also possessing a top-15 NBA player, in the aforementioned Bynum. But there are big question marks on defense, as well as major injury and personality concerns with their star big man.

If everything comes together, you’re looking at a genuine threat in the Eastern Conference, but if the 76ers’ weaknesses on and off the court are exposed, the wheels could come off this team very quickly.