Tag:Nazr Mohammed
Posted on: October 21, 2010 12:42 am
 

2010-2011 NBA Southeast Division Preview

2010-2011 NBA Southeast Division Preview

There is no tried and true formula to winning in the NBA.  Most people, my foolish self included, believe in the sanctity of building through the draft and through cost effective moves in free agency to build around those great players you drafted.  However, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the most successful formula, is to stack your team to the best of your abilities and then follow by adding in a bunch of older players willing to take a veterans salary to contribute to a championship team (or coattail their way to a championship, if you will).  There’s been no more glaring example of stacking your team than what happened in Miami this offseason.  The Heat stayed away from improving their team through free agency for most of the last two years, traded away players this offseason with the sole hope of free agency and then watched it all pay off as both LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami to form one of the most controversial rosters in NBA history.  Whether or not this pays off is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, teams like Orlando and Atlanta, the division’s two best teams the past two seasons, went the traditional route of building on their success by focusing on player development and keeping the core intact.  Orlando, already possessing one of the best players in the league in all world center Dwight Howard, were exposed in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, and whispers of the team being soft were as loud as ever.  Meanwhile, those whispers against Orlando were shouts against Atlanta, as a second straight season ended in them being swept out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  They’ve now dedicated a ton of money to a roster that many feel have already peaked, and this may be Atlanta’s last year to be seen as contenders in the East. 

Meanwhile, Washington drafted their hopeful superstar this past June in John Wall.  Lucking into the number one overall selection, Washington chose Wall and decided to ask questions later.  It’s still a mystery as to how Wall and Gilbert Arenas will play on the court together and Arenas’ insistence on not being seen as a distraction has already directly caused a distraction for the team.  And Charlotte, after buying big time to make the playoffs last year, got swept in their first postseason appearance in franchise history and kept the team together in hopes that they improve. 

So which method of management is best conducive to an NBA Championship?  We’ve seen both methods in the last few years, but the better bet is on Miami this year.  Ultimately, though, we’ll see come June which blueprint is truly the most successful.


1) Miami Heat
Incoming Players:
Dexter Pittman, Da’Sean Butler, Patrick Beverly, Chris Bosh, Eddie House, Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron James, Mike Miller
Outgoing Players:
Quentin Richardson, Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, Dorell Wright, Yakhouba Diawara, Daequan Cook
Team Analysis:
Easily the most hyped team in recent NBA memory (including the 2008 Boston Celtics), the Heat enter this season as a captivating story, polarizing figures and, most of all, a pretty solid basketball team.  Although not your traditional eight deep, in sync roster that you’d come to expect from many of the league’s greatest, the Heat feature three of the best players in the league in their starting lineup and did so after a humongous free agent coup by Pat Riley this offseason.  When the team did everything from passing up on free agents, trading away draft picks and letting players walk in order to clear the cap space for this summer, it was pretty evident that team president Pat Riley had gone all in and was gambling the franchise’s future on this offseason alone.  But his gambles paid off when Dwyane Wade resigned, Chris Bosh came over in free agency and then two time defending NBA MVP LeBron James, in a not so subtle manner, announced he was taking his talents to South Beach as well.

What sets these guys apart from previous players who teamed up to take over the league is that all of these guys are in their prime.  From a historical standpoint, most fans were upset to see three players in their prime basically take the “easy route” and join up to win championships.  But from a basketball standpoint, it’s a bold move that should pay off for the Heat.  After trading away Michael Beasley in order to resign Udonis Haslem and add Mike Miller in free agency, the Heat had every who’s who of past-their-prime role players knocking on the door to try and get that elusive championship before retirement.  Former all stars Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard were among the first to join the team and will probably be among the team’s most important reserves in the frontcourt.  Take that for what it’s worth.

The rest of the roster isn’t shaping up as anything beautiful but, honestly, they don’t need to be incredibly deep.  The talent gap between the third best player on the team and the fourth best player on the team is humongous, and therein lies the question of how this team is really going to perform this season if an injury is to happen, if one of the players struggles in adapting to a limited role or if dare the other starters like Mario Chalmers or Joel Anthony to beat them.  At the end of the day, the Heat will rely heavily on Miller and Haslem to bolster the big three and, if they stay healthy and perform to their capabilities, it could be more than enough for the Heat to reign as champions.  But with players like Wade, Miller and Bosh all having a history with injuries, the room for error is really thin.  There’s no doubt that just as Pat Riley was this offseason, this Heat roster better be all in to win a championship this season, or else the critics will be as loud as ever.

2) Orlando Magic
Incoming Players:
Daniel Orton, Stanley Robinson, Malik Allen, Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson
Outgoing Players:
Matt Barnes, Adonal Foyle, Anthony Johnson
Team Analysis:
Lost in some of the hoopla surrounding this offseason was the 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic.  After making the NBA Finals in 2009, the team was bounced from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 in convincing fashion by the Boston Celtics.  Although the team had strong performances from Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, the rest of the team faltered as the Celtics closed out the Magic in six games.  Despite his strong performance, however, all of the criticism remained on Dwight Howard and his inability to will his team to victory.  Due to his frustration with the criticism, with teams playing him very physical and with consistently being in foul trouble during last year’s postseason, Howard is said to be a man on a mission this offseason, working with 2008 Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon on his still developing offensive repertoire and promising to cut down on the fan friendly, childish actions that most fans have associated him with.  If Howard is able to continue to progress offensively to already meet his fantastic defensive presence and capabilities, then the Magic could soon posses the most dominant player in the league.  But his development is key to how far Orlando goes this season.

Players like Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis struggled with consistency last season after huge years in 2009.  There’s no doubt that the team as a whole performed much better when Nelson played at a high level and struggled when he did, and his attempts to regain his early form of the 2009 season will be huge for Orlando if he’s to reach that level.  However, numerous offseason attempts to move Nelson to improve the roster probably don’t bode well for the team’s hope of him doing so.  Lewis on the other hand is finally being criticized for his ludicrous salary as his production, while never fully meeting his paycheck before, became a detriment to the team last season when his offensive numbers fell across the board.  A move back to his more natural Small Forward position would probably suit Lewis well, but the offense that Orlando runs gels better when Lewis is at the Power Forward spot shooting a high percentage from outside.  The team’s lineup, ultimate success and even fiscal future could depend a lot on how Lewis plays this year.

As far as the role players that surround the team’s most central figures, Quentin Richardson enters after Matt Barnes left to join the Lakers.  He can probably replace Barnes’ offensive production, but he will struggle to match Barnes’ importance on the defensive end.  Therefore, more will be asked of Mickael Pietrus this season in Orlando, and you have to wonder if he’ll be up to the task for a full season and postseason.  The team matched Chicago’s offer sheet for J.J. Redick, giving them three of the highest paid reserves in the league in Redick, Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass.  Bass, who barely played at all last year, is more of a traditional PF and his strong postseason play may result in a more traditional lineup at times for Orlando.  But whether Stan Van Gundy commits to him or Ryan Anderson as the back-up PF depends on whether or not he wants to abandon the system the team has ran the past two seasons.  Whether or not the system they’ve ran has run its course is still to be seen, and will play a large factor into whether or not the team returns to the NBA Finals this season.

3) Washington Wizards
Incoming Players:
John Wall, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Hamady N’diaye, Hilton Armstrong, Kirk Hinrich, Yi Jianlian

Outgoing Players:
Shaun Livingston, Mike Miller, Fabricio Oberto, Cartier Martin, James Singleton, Cedric Jackson, Quinton Ross, Randy Foye, Earl Boykins
Team Analysis:
Two years ago, Washington did very much the same thing that Atlanta did this offseason.  Even though the team had made the postseason four consecutive years, they had only one playoff victory in those four years to show for it and many felt the team had reached its peak.  Instead, the Wizards committed a combined 161 million dollars over 6 and 4 years, respectively, to franchise players Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.  Arenas has played only 34 games in the two seasons since signing that contract while Jamison was traded to Cleveland at last season’s trade deadline in a moment where the Wizards decided to rebuild the roster.  Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were all traded at last season’s deadline, but Arenas’ contract looks immovable, and the team will put him on the court again; at least for this season.  But after committed a huge chunk of cash to what many felt was an above average cast, the Wizards saw injuries and suspensions ruin the team’s reputation and overall winning percentage, as the Wizards have combined for 55 victories in the two seasons that followed that spending spree to keep the team intact.  And although 2009’s 19 win season was ugly, it hit rock bottom last year after Arenas was suspended for supposedly drawing a gun out towards a teammate in an argument over a card game in the team’s locker room.  What followed was a largely upsetting season where the team only won 26 games. 

But the team’s luck may eventually be turning around.  After the death of owner Abe Polin last year, the team was successfully sold to Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, they scored the number one overall pick in the draft and used it on Kentucky point guard John Wall, and had impressive second half performances from big men Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee after the trade deadline, giving the team a semblance of hope this upcoming season.  In John Wall, the Wizards immediately have a new face of the franchise and cornerstone player around whom the team plans to build.  Wall won almost every collegiate award in his freshman season at Kentucky and hopes to follow in Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans’ shoes as point guards under former college coach John Calipari who went on to win the Rookie of the Year award.  Rose and Evans have won the last two respectively.  That would be a welcome change of pace for Washington, who are trying to reunite with their fan base and shake the problems that hurt the team on and off the court the last two seasons. 

Gilbert Arenas has already caused problems.  Most media outlets are talking about his stern expressions, reluctance to give interviews and unwillingness to show any emotion as an act more so than a turning of the leaf, and he’s already been fined by the league for faking an injury to allow guard Nick Young more playing time this preseason.  How he reacts to this year plays a large role in how the team ultimately does.  Blatche performed very well as the go to guy in the second half of last season and McGee had an impressive showing at this year’s summer league and followed it up by being one of the final players cut from the final roster for the USA’s World Championship team.  If those two players team up with Wall to show a consistent production this year, then the Wizards, at the very least, will have something to build around for the future.  They could be one of the surprise teams in the league this year.  But a lot of that depends on whether or not Gilbert Arenas buys into the system, and also whether or not he can regain some of the magic he showed on the court prior to his first knee injury late in the 2008 season.


4) Atlanta Hawks
Incoming Players:
Jordan Crawford, Pape Sy, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Outgoing Players:
Randolph Morris, Mario West, Joe Smith,
Team Analysis:
For eight straight seasons, the Atlanta Hawks were a dependable team in terms of NBA Futility.  They routinely finished among the worst teams in the league, underwent numerous head coaching and regime changes and couldn’t convince any star player to capitalize on their infinite cap space.  Joe Johnson changed all that when he left for Atlanta in the middle of that run in 2005, and by his third season with the team, Atlanta had returned to the NBA playoffs and pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round in 2008.  Two Eastern Conference Semifinals appearances followed, but both were convincing sweeps at the hands of Cleveland and Orlando.  Instead of figuring that the roster had reached its peak with those two consecutive embarrassing exits, the Hawks instead figured it to be head coach Mike Woodson, who oversaw a gradual improvement with the Hawks from 13 wins in his first season in 2004 to the 53 wins the team achieved last season.  Stepping into his place will be longtime assistant coach Larry Drew, who wants to run a more motion based offense instead of the isolation game that Woodson preferred.  Fully believing that it was Woodson, and not the roster, that had held the Hawks back, Atlanta committed six years and 129 million dollars to Joe Johnson this offseason in hopes that he can continue to lead the Hawks as they try and improve upon their past success.  Whether or not that contract eventually spells an early fall from grace or an eventual rise to glory is largely debatable. 

But Johnson’s not the only important player on the team.  The Hawks still have hope that Josh Smith, coming off a very impressive season last year, will continue his ascension among the most exciting players in the league.  Graced with natural athleticism and starting to finally develop a better feel for the game, Smith had his best year last year with new head coach Drew working directly with him.  His development could mean wonders for Atlanta.  The team does have two more contract situations to work out.  Reigning sixth man of the year Jamaal Crawford is asking for an extension as is All Star center Al Horford.  As of yet, neither have reached deals and Crawford has asked to be traded if he doesn’t reach an extension with the team.  With rookie Jordan Crawford capable of playing a similar role, there’s a good chance that Jamaal doesn’t finish the year with the team.  But we’ll see with how those contracts are worked whether or not the Hawks are truly committed to keeping this team intact.  And we’ll see in due time if that was the correct decision to make. 

5) Charlotte Bobcats
Incoming Players:
Sherron Collins, Kwame Brown, Matt Carroll, Shaun Livingston, Dominic McGuire, Eduardo Najera
Outgoing Players:
Raymond Felton, Theo Ratliff, Tyson Chandler, Larry Hughes, Stephen Graham, Alexis Ajinca
Team Analysis:
Ever since head coach Larry Brown came to Charlotte in 2008, the team has seen a plethora of bold moves made by team president and eventual team owner Michael Jordan in an attempt to remove Charlotte from the sea of mediocrity it had been in for the majority of its existence.  Those bold moves finally resulted in a playoff appearance last season, although the Bobcats were quickly swept by Orlando in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  But because of the major moves Charlotte made to become winners: namely taking on the contracts of big men DeSagana Diop and Nazr Mohammed, and also taking on the contracts of productive wing players Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, the Bobcats reverted back to seller mode this offseason.  Since Brown came to the team in 2008, only Gerald Wallace remains from the team that Brown inherited, and the team has made so many moves that it reacquired Matt Carroll, a player the team traded in 2009, in an offseason trade that rid themselves of Tyson Chandler’s big salary.  Therefore, it could be said that the Bobcats won’t be afraid to wheel and deal again this season, although early indications would be that the team will be more in seller mode this season.

True to that, the team let Raymond Felton walk in free agency and the biggest question surrounding the Bobcats is who will play the point guard position.  2008 first round draft pick D.J. Augustin looks to be the early favorite, although he’s been pushed by former lottery pick Shaun Livingston for the job.  Neither are Earth shattering candidates to run the point, so we may see a lot of the offense being run through Stephen Jackson.  It’s fair to call Wallace the best player on the Bobcats team, but it’s no coincidence that Jackson’s midseason acquisition coincided with a run that got the team to its first ever playoff appearance.  More may be asked of Jackson this year, who saw his numbers dip a little bit last year after leaving Golden State’s offense.  He and Wallace are easily the team’s best players, and Wallace is still the face of the franchise, having remained with the team since its inception in 2004. 

The Bobcats downgraded the team in terms of talent when they traded disappointing center Tyson Chandler to Dallas for Erick Dampier’s non guaranteed contract and mainly hustle players in Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera.  Najera has been a fan favorite wherever he’s gone, but his skill set is better suited for a more talented team.  Carroll had his best years in Charlotte, and may assume a bigger role with the team this season than he had while in Dallas.  Dampier was quickly cut, leaving the center position about as uninspiring as the team’s outlook at point guard, with Diop and Mohammed being the early options at that position.  The Bobcats are a tough team to get a grip on, as they should be looked at as a team on the rise given their first postseason appearance in franchise history occurred last season, but the team is largely made up of veterans, and not all of those veterans are in the peak of their careers anymore.  In fact, it’s arguable that Wallace is the only one still in his peak.  So while the Bobcats built something last year, it’s hard to envision them building on that this season.

Posted on: September 29, 2009 2:19 pm
Edited on: May 3, 2010 2:45 am
 

NBA 2009-2010 Southeast Division Preview

The NBA: where amazing happens.  Don’t believe me?  Well then you get watch the propaganda spewed out by David Stern with his commercials during the NBA Playoffs.  Or, if you want more concrete evidence, watch the Orlando Magic’s meteoric rise to the NBA Finals last season.  Given no credit during preseason predictions last season, the Magic went from being an “above average” team to now being the defending Eastern Conference Champion.  But the Magic did not make it without problems.  The credibility of their coach came into question at the first quotable reference from Shaquille O’Neal.  The offensive game of Dwight Howard was critiqued at every level.  Hedo Turkoglu was criticized, loved, and then all but disowned by the Magic fan base and organization.  So even though the Magic are the defending division and conference champion, they enter this year with new players, a new mentality but with the same goal as everyone in this division: win the NBA Championship.

The southeast division isn’t the most star studded division to take the court but they’re a solid bunch all with hopes of duplicating Orlando’s success from last season.  Miami went from winning 15 games, to riding Dwyane Wade back to the postseason last year.  Washington, playing all of last year without Gilbert Arenas, will look to do the same thing this season.  Meanwhile, a team like Atlanta hopes to take the big step forward that Orlando took last season while a team like Charlotte is full of talent, but still trying to find its identity in hopes of making the first postseason appearance in franchise history. 

With new players, returning players and everything in between, this division has a whole new feel to it.  However, as solid as it is, it’s not crowded at the top.  Orlando enters this season as the team to beat in this division but you have four hungry and capable teams rounding out the division.  From two to five, the division is really tight and could really fluctuate.  There should be no doubt, however,  that this is Orlando’s division to lose. 

This is how I predict the Southeast Division will turn out for the 2009-2010 season.

1. Orlando Magic – Last season’s run for Orlando was a sight to behold.  Dwight Howard captured hearts and accolades with his performance all year and is now established as the unquestioned best center in the league.  Things looked bleak as far as a run in the playoffs was concerned when Jameer Nelson was lost for the season.  But the Magic pulled off a terrific trade for Rafer Alston and made the NBA Finals.  Stan Van Gundy was mentioned as one of the best coaches in the NBA, but when he got into a public exchange of words with Shaquille O’Neal, he was accused of being a “master of panic” and immediately Van Gundy was under intense scrutiny.  Every mistake, every play was overly scrutinized in the postseason and every time that Van Gundy’s Magic lost a game, he was immediately blamed for it.  Even Marcin Gortat, the backup center for the team, came out and criticized the coach in a newspaper published in his native country during the postseason.  Somehow, Van Gundy was still able to rally his troops to upset victories in series against the defending champion Boston Celtics and the indestructible Cleveland Cavaliers before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers (another loss he was blamed for).

The Magic enter this season without Hedo Turkoglu, who has been the big floor manager for them for both seasons of the Van Gundy regime.  Once he left for the money in Toronto, the Magic jettisoned the often criticized Rafer Alston, backup big man Tony Battie and promising rookie Courtney Lee to bring in Florida native Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.  This gives the Magic a new dimension that Turkoglu really couldn’t bring and that’s athleticism.  Now, not only will the team be able to shoot the long distance shot, they can also run the floor better and really push it out in transition.  A healthy Jameer Nelson and the NBA return of Jason Williams, signed to be a backup here in Orlando, will also help matters in terms of pushing the tempo.  The Magic are blessed with solid depth at every position across the board and should use that to their advantage all season long.  With the new addition of Matt Barnes, they can start he or Mickael Pietrus at the three and Vince Carter at the two.  Barnes and Pietrus both give the Magic incredible defensive effort and three point shooting, so either can be used for different matchups.  With big men like Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat on the bench, the Magic are one of the few teams that has premium big men at their disposal.  This may help Rashard Lewis avoid having to play bigger men for extended minutes during the game. 

All in all, the Magic enter this season with a swagger that was missing going into last season’s Eastern Conference Champion team.  Time will tell if the addition of Vince Carter is an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu or if the chemistry will be missing with Turkoglu gone.  But there’s no denying that the talent is there, the experience is there and the mentality is there.  Now they just need to take that last step to get the job done.


2. 
Atlanta Hawks – Pigs may not be able to fly.  Dogs may not able to speak English and Tony Romo may not be able to win a playoff game.  But another miracle is taking place right before our eyes, consistency is residing in the Atlanta Hawks franchise.  Not that they hadn’t been consistent before; if you include consecutive last place finishes consistency.  But with Mike Woodson entering his fifth year at the head coaching spot and with the Hawks fresh off not only their second straight postseason appearance but their first playoff series victory in ten years, the Hawks display promise, direction and, dare I say it, consistency.  The acquisition of Joe Johnson has a lot to do with that, as he’s given the Hawks a solid first option for the last four seasons and has stepped up continuously when the team has needed it.  The acquisition of Mike Bibby also has done a lot, as it’s given the Hawks leadership and experience when they had none of it outside of Johnson prior to Bibby arriving.  But, when you show promise expectations arrive, and now it’s time for the Hawks to start showing that they can take a new step in the right direction.  Al Horford really proved to be key for the Hawks last year, and there’s no doubt that his injury played a big factor in why the Hawks were so outmatched against Cleveland in the Semifinals.  He needs to stay healthy and continue to improve his game as the Hawks are a much better team when he’s being assertive and looking for possessions.  The Hawks also missed Marvin William in the postseason, as the guard and forward was beginning to play a huge role in the team’s development.  But his injury also derailed the team’s momentum. 

Josh Smith enters the season with no contract problems, no questions about his game, this is going to be his team sometime in the near future.  He’s still prone to taking too many jump shots, but Smith has really evolved his game the last few seasons and stepped up his performance in the postseason.  That was crucial to the Hawks winning that playoff series against Miami.    Coming off the bench, the Hawks have two solid big men in Zaza Pachulia and free agent signee Joe Smith.  Gone is Flip Murray from last season’s squad, but they upgraded the sixth man-combo guard role with the acquisition of Jamal Crawford.  Crawford, if he openly accepts this diminished role, should flourish being the first option off the bench with no other assignment other than to score.  He and Maurice Evans are a solid offensive duo on any squad and really give the Hawks options past the starting five. 

It’s hard to tell if any further progression will be made in Atlanta this season, but the seeds are in place for this team to grow and evolve.  Staying healthy and staying hungry are huge keys for the team and how they start the season will speak wonders about what should be on the horizon in Atlanta.


3. 
Washington Wizards – Last season was disastrous in our nation’s capital.  Washington had injuries to everyone on the roster outside of Antawn Jamison, got their coach fired and watched an abysmal season get worse until it mercifully ended with 63 losses.  But there’s a new feeling of refreshment in Washington and it has everything to do with players on the team getting healthy, and not the turnover from last season’s squad.  Gilbert Arenas has played all of 15 games the last two seasons and his scoring and ability to give the team options in the clutch was sorely missed last season.  He had another knee surgery after signing his big free agent contract last offseason, but the Wizards seem determined to give him, Caron Butler and Jamison one more run at a championship.  The biggest setback to this is that the Wizards never showed any kind of elite potential when all three were on the court together in the first place, and Butler, himself, has missed an average of 19 games a year since arriving to Washington.  But the Wizards are still optimistic and the arrival of Flip Saunders should help fuel that optimism.

Although his reputation has taken a beating, Flip Saunders really has shown an ability to exceed during the regular season, something the Wizards must first do before approaching any talks of winning a championship.  He has a sound feel for the game on the offensive side of the ball and should be able to find a way to maximize the talent on the roster.  Having options like Randy Foye and Mike Miller on the bench should only help matters in Washington, as their thin bench last year became almost laughable.  Nick Young will either settle into the starting two guard role or will go back to the bench this year, something that will also help with the depth of this squad.  Brendan Haywood also is returning from injury this year for Washington, and he and newly acquired Fabricio Oberto give the Wizards solid big man depth as well. 

The pieces are in place in Washington for another postseason run by the Wizards.  Healthier players, new players and a new coach have helped ease the memory of last season’s disaster.  The optimism is legit, as the prospects of a playoff appearance are good for the Wizards.  But talks of a championship, or a run at the Finals, seem a bit premature.  Especially with all the growing they’ll have to do this year.
 


4. 
Miami Heat – It’s amazing, but it seems so long ago that Shaquille O’Neal was manning down the center position in Miami and the Heat were winning championships.  Amazingly, it’s only been three seasons.  But the Heat hit bottom hard when the injury bug bit start guard Dwyane Wade and they seemed to be a franchise heading nowhere in a hurry.  Wade stayed healthy last season, though, and followed up his spectacular play in the Summer Olympics with an MVP-Caliber season and leading the Heat to a postseason appearance.  The biggest problem in Miami, though, was that Wade seemed to be doing it all by himself.  Michael Beasley took a long time to develop and then crumbled this offseason.  Mario Chalmers was solid all season as a starting point guard, even as a second round rookie, but still heard rumors about being replaced all offseason.  Even a flirting session with free agent Allen Iverson didn’t seem to do much to give Wade hope that help was on the horizon, so it’s hard to imagine the Heat believing they can be any better than they were last season. 

One reason for optimism is that Wade is in the prime of his career and all the young players (and head coaches) on the team are a year older.  Last season’s run at the playoffs did a lot for the franchise but they did nothing to truly expand on it.  Jermaine O’Neal is still going to be the team’s starting center and will have his first full year with Miami while doing it.  But his inconsistent play and continued battle with injuries don’t do much to ensure he’ll be there for the entire ride.  And instead of improving the backup big men on the team, the Heat opted to resign both Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire.  Daequan Cook and Chris Quinn give the team three point shooters off the bench and Udonis Haslem continues to man down the power forward position for this squad, but there wasn’t much excitement last year even during the team’s postseason push.  All of the attention and praise went to Dwyane Wade and his MVP Chase.

If the Heat are to take any steps forward, the maturation process with Chalmers and Michael Beasley will really have to take fruition.  Or else they’ll be stuck in the middle of the pack just as they were last year.  Having to do everything by himself could cause Wade to burn out and that could only spell doom for Miami.


5. 
Charlotte Bobcats – The Charlotte Bobcats are a hard team to figure out.  They have one of the greatest coaches in NBA history on the bench.  They have the best player to play the game as an executive and talent scout, and they have a solid bunch of role players, veterans and young players on the squad to really make up a solid team.  However, there just seems to be no reason for excitement in Charlotte.  The environment there didn’t change much this offseason when the Bobcats traded Emeka Okafor to the Hornets for Tyson Chandler.  Chandler has a long history of injuries and inconsistent play, although he’s just as good as Okafor at the center position.  If he can stay healthy, it will really do wonders for this squad and it’s ability to run the floor.  But chances are he won’t be able to do that.  In order to make a run at the postseason, the Bobcats acquired veteran role players Raja Bells, Boris Diaw, Vladimir Radmonovic, and DeSagana Diop.  But it didn’t pay off as the team narrowly missed the postseason and is now stuck with bloated contracts from all four players. 

They recently brought back Raymond Felton, who watched his job go to rookie guard D.J. Augustin.  Augustin did a lot off the bench for the Bobcats before fading down the stretch last season.  With some proper conditioning, he can really give the Bobcats hope to be that point guard of the future.  Gerald Wallace looks to have a bounce back season after struggling with injuries all of last season.  With Okafor gone, Wallace is now the only original Bobcat on the squad and is the unquestioned leader of the team.  If he can stay healthy it’d do wonders for the team on the court and in the locker room.  The addition of Ronald Murray will do a lot of the Bobcats as he can be the team’s sixth man and help alleviate some of the pressure off of Augustin coming off of the bench.  Nazr Mohammed teams up with Diop to combine a solid big man trio in Charlotte giving them pretty good depth at basically every position.

It’s hard to explain the problems in Charlotte.  Looking at the roster, there may not be any.  But the organization still has a long way to go in terms of creating a positive environment that players will want to compete in, and believe they can win in.  That’s on the horizon but not quite there in Charlotte. 

Posted on: January 23, 2009 4:18 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2009 6:20 pm
 

The Rise And Fall of the Phoenix Suns (Part 1)

For four years, few teams matched the excitement and mystique that surrounded when the Phoenix Suns were set to appear in a basketball game.  Led by the innovative Mike D'Antoni and highly successful Steve Nash, the Suns resurrected a moribound franchise and turned the NBA upside down in the process.  With quick cuts, fantastic slams around the basket, a plethora of three point baskets and with absolutely no defense (which in turn allows the other team to follow through with all of those aforementioned offensive attractions) the Phoenix Suns became the team for the casual NBA fan, and the team that most of us wanted to watch when we felt like being assured entertaining basketball.  But funny things happen when you tinker with the system and bring things that people are not used to to the forefront.  When you introduce basketball's version of the spread offense, success can be attained but only when you bring championships are your efforts truly respected.  Many people passed off D'Antoni's philosophy on basketball and said that it could not win championships.  That same criticism turned the greatest period in Phoenix Suns basketball upside down, and seemingly prolonged the franchise's now 40 year history. 

It all started with a trade back in 2001, when the Suns traded future hall of fame point guard Jason Kidd for the insanely talented Stephon Marbury.  This trade was supposed to be a nice swap of talented guards which would result in hardly a change for either squad.  Instead, the Suns went to the lottery and the Nets went to the NBA finals.  Stephon Marbury's frustrating first season in Phoenix resulted in a trip to the lottery for the Suns, which resulted in Amar'e Stoudemire being added to the team.  With Stoudemire garnering rookie of the year honors and the team's quiet acquisition of guard Joe Johnson from the Boston Celtics, the Suns sneaked into the playoffs with the 8th seed and surprised the top ranked San Antonio Spurs in game 1 of their first round matchup.  Shortly thereafter, though, the Spurs would emerge victorious and things took a turn for the better; eventually.

The 2003-2004 season started off with mediocre expectations for a seemingly dirrectionless Phoenix franchise.  Then in midseason, amidst the team's struggles and inability to show any immediate progress, owner Robert Sarver steamheaded a complete reconstruction of the Suns.  Both Jerry and Brian Colangelo went to work on putting the pieces in place for this team to fully take off.  Frank Johnson was removed from the head coaching position and assistant coach and longtime European league coach Mike D'Antoni would be given the reigns.  Also, in what would headstart a completely opposite direction for the two franchises, the Suns sent Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks for five players who would not finish the season as Phoenix Suns players in addition to two first round draft selections.  Although the Knicks made the playoffs that season, nobody could have predicted the decline that would soon follow Stephon Marbury's fourth franchise.  Then again, nobody could have predicted the ascension that awaited in Arizona.

In the offseason, the Suns quickly gave Mike D'Antoni a vote of confidence despite his 21-40 record finishing the season as Phoenix's head coach.  The team's late surge, which was spurred by guard Joe Johnson, rookie guard Leandro Barbosa and now second year forward Amar'e Stoudemire could have been a huge factor in why D'Antoni was given a second chance.  Once free agency started, the Suns made a big splash by signing free agent point guard Steve Nash and free agent forward Quentin Richardson.  D'Antoni would move Stoudemire to center and insert forward Shawn Marion at the power forward position (a move Marion continuously complained about despite putting up the best numbers of his career) giving the team a ridiculously small lineup.  What ensured was pure, utter, fast break basketball.

Steve Nash spearheaded a revolutionary style of play as the Suns quickly brought offense back to the forefront in the NBA.  Gone where the days of walking a ball upcourt while your seven foot center could set up under the basket.  With quick, athletic big men like Stoudemire and Marion and with an intelligent and talented point guard like Steve Nash leading the way, the Suns went on to average 110.4 points per game (although giving up 103.3 PPG) and posted an NBA best 62-20 record.  Steve Nash shocked all by winning the NBA MVP award while D'Antoni and Colangelo were given the coach and executive of the year awards respectively.  In the playoffs, guard Joe Johnson would succumb to an eye injury and the Suns would sorely miss his leadership and skillset.  A sound defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies and a trouncing of the Dallas Mavericks set the Suns up with who would become the main reason for the Suns eventual decline: the San Antonio Spurs.

The San Antonio Spurs are basically the anti-Phoenix Sun.  They don't dazzle you with fantastic athleticism or bombard you with a multitude of points, they systematically and soudnly defeat their opponents by way of Tim Duncan and a group of role players that are fine performing their tasks for the sake of the greater good: a Larry O'Brien Trophy.  The Spurs two centers that year, Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic, would probably not even get a sniff from D'Antoni yet wound up becoming productive players on championship teams.  Was D'Antoni's emphasis on speed and offense neglecting all that you were tought growing up?  Is a great offense truly better than a great defense?  Can you win scoring 110 points instead of focusing on holding your opponents below 90?  These all came to a head in this true battle of wits.

Amar'e Stoudemire would experience a coming out party against the Spurs, as San Antonio had no answer for the young player on his way to averages totaling over 30 PPG in the series.  But the Spurs, with two championship trophies already to their credit, would be able to answer every trick Phoenix tried.  Bruce Bowen was there to contain Steve Nash's explosiveness, Tony Parker was there to expose Nash's glaring defensive deffeciences, Tim Duncan was there to take care of Stoudemire's similar weaknesses, and the Spurs took the Suns out in 5 games, bringing end to the fantastic first season in the D'Antoni era. 

Many people did not know what to expect for an encore in Phoenix.  The gimmick offense was sure to be stopped when teams were given ample time to prepare for it.  Expectations can always ruin a team not used to winning, and Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire would be gone, Johnson in a trade to the Atlanta Hawks and Stoudemire due to knee surgery.  The Joe Johnson trade brought Boris Diaw, an afterthought in many instances and then the Suns shipped Quentin Richardson and the draft rights to Nate Robinson to New York for a center in Kurt Thomas that they believed would be able to counter Tim Duncan's effectiveness in a seven game series.  The team also obtained guard Raja Bell, a player praised for his on the ball defensive prowress and three point effeciency.  But the sky was not the limit this season, as, without Stoudemire, many expected the Suns to fail.

Stoudemire's absence meant wonderful things for Shawn Marion who turned in the best year of his career.  Boris Diaw proved out to be a fantastic find by the Colangelo's, winning the NBA most improved player of the year award, and Steve Nash went on to win his second consecutive NBA MVP award after helping lead the Suns to a 54-28 record in the regular season.  But the signs of the eventual decline already started to take shape.  Bryan Colangelo was said to have major conflicts with owner Robert Sarver and bolted to take the General Manager position with the Toronto Raptors.  Stoudemire received heavy criticism from the organization when he spent a majority of the season away from the squad while tending to his knee.  And although the team managed to avoid the Spurs in the postseason, draining seven game series with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers took alout of Phoenix, as they simply had nothing left by the time they met the Dirk Nowitzki led Mavericks in a second consecutive Western Conference Finals.

The 2006-2007 season brought about great expectations for the Phoenix squad.  With Boris Diaw teaming with Leandro Barbosa on the bench, the Suns were supposed to finally have that deep squad that would allow for D'Antoni to stray from his favored 7-man rotations and still provide the same innovative offensive schemes that had been prominent the previous two seasons.  Phoenix struggled with chemistry some, including Stoudemire back into the lineup and it showed.  The team, though, rebounded quickly to the tune of 61 victories and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

Elsewhere in the NBA, the 67 victory Dallas Mavericks had been upset by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs in what would be largely noted as the greatest upset in playoff history, and the Utah Jazz would celebrate their return to the playoffs after a three year absence with a victory over the Houston Rockets, giving the Suns home court advantage, now, throughout the playoffs and seemingly the drivers seat to an elusive championship.  After the Suns quickly dispatched of the Lakers for a second consecutive season, they saw themselves standing opposite the 3rd seeded San Antonio Spurs, and a fantastic conference semifinals ensued. 

Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker quickly asserted physiciality into the already deeply rooted rivalry with the Spurs, as Steve Nash left game 1 with a bloodied nose recieved from Parker and could not finish the game, as the Spurs pulled out a close victory.  This brought about major criticism as some felt it was unfair for the Suns to lose without their best player due to excessive blood loss, but the rules would stay and the Spurs maintained a 1-0 series lead.  After taking game 2, Phoenix would head to San Antonio for one of the most controversial games in recent memory.  Game 3 between the Spurs and the Suns was known for its excessive fouls called, constant whistles and annoying lack of gamesmanship in the contest.  The Spurs would ride a questionable free throw advantage to the victory and then all hell broke loose.  With Phoenix rebounding to take game 4, Robert Horry stepped in front of Steve Nash on a harmless drive down the baseline, and changed the Phoenix Suns forever.

With the series tied at 2 games apiece and heading back to Phoenix, all cards seemed to be in place for Phoenix to finally nudge past their nemisis and gain ground towards becoming NBA Champions.  But Horry's flagrant foul on Steve Nash sent the Suns into a frenzy, which resulted in both Stoudemire and Diaw leaving the Suns bench and therefore forcing the NBA's hand in having to suspend those two players for a critical game 5 in Phoenix.  Mike D'Antoni criticized the decision but his efforts went unnoticed as the suspensions stood.  A game Phoenix crowd and shorthanded squad gave the Spurs trouble but eventually succumbed in a game 5 loss.  The team returned to San Antonio demoralized, and could not take advantage of Stoudemire and Diaw's reintroduction into the lineup and would lose game 6 in San Antonio.

In effect, the Robert Horry foul gave Phoenix their first leigitmate gripe of the D'Antoni era.  Being too inexperienced in 2005 and too tired in 2006, 2007 seemed a prime opportunity for Phoenix to grab the franchise's first championship.  The Horry foul took away their best shot at putting a foot down on the rival Spurs' throats, and assured us all that there's always that one squad that prevents you from winning.  For Phoenix, it was San Antonio.  The Spurs went on to win the championship that season, and in the process demoralized alot of the Phoenix fan base.  The same team would essentially return for 2007-2008 but the excitement, hunger and mystique surrounding the franchise had gone away.  After posting a mediocre start to the season, new general manager Steve Kerr would make the move that effectively ended the D'Antoni era in Phoenix.

 
 
 
 
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