Everyone seems to be looking forward to Oct. 26 with breathless anticipation. That's when the 2010-11 NBA season tips off, with the Miami Heat playing the Boston Celtics in the battle of the Big Threes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to that, too. But not nearly as much as I'm looking forward to Oct. 29, when the Heat host another Eastern Conference power, the Orlando Magic. The Celtics? They're still contenders, but it's going to take a few months for those creaky knees to get loosened up. Boston won't be in midseason form until, oh, May. The Magic will be ready to go, with something to prove, from Day 1.
So Oct. 29 will be our first glimpse of how the team in the East most capable of toppling Miami actually measures up. It will be too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but that doesn't mean it won't be fun to watch.
The Heat can win 65, 70, or 73 regular-season games if they want; they have so much talent that anything's possible. But their biggest test will be defending the 3-point shot and stopping a highly motivated Dwight Howard in a best-of-7 playoff series against Orlando. And no matter how good the combination of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is -- no matter how much single-coverage Chris Bosh faces as a result of their greatness -- and regardless of how close they are defensively to the Bulls team that went 72-10 in 1995-96, Howard ultimately is going to present the biggest challenge they face.
Does Orlando have enough to win more regular-season games than Miami and win its fourth consecutive Southeast Division title? Probably not, but it doesn't matter, anyway. Every time these two teams tangle in the regular season, the focus will be on how it will apply to the postseason. That's why neither Wade nor James is the most important player in the most dramatically transformed division in the NBA. That honor goes to the man who has the ability to singlehandedly stop them both: Howard.
Predicted order of finish (2009-10 record):
1. Heat (47-35)
2. Magic (59-23)
3. Hawks (53-29)
4. Wizards (26-56)
5. Bobcats (44-38)
|Mike Miller's 3-point shooting could space the floor in Miami. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Personally, I understand coach Erik Spoelstra's allegiance to a more traditional point-guard look with Carlos Arroyo starting in the backcourt with Wade. But I question how long he'll want to stick with that. For the Heat to max out their potential, they're better off going with a two-wing approach and letting Wade and LeBron share the initiating duties on offense. Each guy's biggest advantage comes when he has the ball in his hands, and putting a point guard on the floor with them takes the ball out of their hands and makes them move and cut without the ball. That's not the best use of their talents. So for starters, Wade and LeBron need to have the ball as much as possible for this to work at optimal efficiency. (That gives you a starting lineup of Wade, LeBron, Miller, Bosh and Anthony. Not too shabby.)
X-Factor: If Miller could shoot 48 percent from 3-point range with the 26-win Wizards, imagine what he could do with all the open looks Wade and LeBron will provide for him. But Miller needs to go back to being the willing 3-point shooter he was in Memphis, where he hoisted 498 3-pointers in '06-'07 compared to a career-low 171 last season in Washington.
|Will Dwight Howard be motivated to dominate the paint? (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: If Howard's appetite for proving his doubters wrong fizzles by Election Day, the Magic will begin the slow, painful march to second fiddle in the division -- not to mention spectators when the Heat and Celtics are battling in the conference finals.
X-Factor: Quentin Richardson. OK, so the Heat signed LeBron and Bosh and the Magic countered with Richardson and Chris Duhon -- recent castoffs from abysmal Knicks teams. But each of those players fits a particular need within Orlando's scheme: Duhon is an adept pick-and-roll point guard who can be effective when asked to do no more than be a serviceable backup, and Richardson (when healthy) is a 3-point sniper and versatile defender. In a best-of-7 series, Q-Rich will be the key as an extra shooter on the offensive end and as one of the few players in the league who can defend either Wade or LeBron.
|Josh Smith will need to be focused for the Hawks to make some noise. (AP)|
What could go wrong: If the players view Drew as a weaker, more vulnerable version of Woodson, they're in trouble. Not lottery-bound trouble, mind you; they have too much talent to miss the playoffs. But at some point, the fickle fan base in Atlanta is going to realize that this is the same team they've been watching for five years, only with less of a shot at getting to the conference finals because everyone else got better. If the players tune out Drew, the fans will tune out the team, and the Hawks will find themselves regretting Johnson's massive contract before he even completes one year of it.
X-Factor: At this stage of his career, Mike Bibby simply isn't a point guard who can lead a team deep into the playoffs. But he's still a capable offensive threat, with skills that can be showcased in other ways if Drew can find a reliable point guard to take some of the playmaking responsibilities. Enter Jeff Teague, whose quickness better complements athletes like Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams. The Hawks need Teague to thrive as a change-of-pace initiator off the bench, which will either get Bibby off the floor for stretches or move him off the ball.
|The Wizards' future is bright with John Wall running the point. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: As is often the case for teams trying to crawl back into contention, the biggest upside can also be the biggest liability. Arenas isn't saying so overtly, but he wants a trade that will give him a fresh start somewhere else. The wounds are too fresh from everything that went down a year ago. The Wizards can't trade him and his $80 million contract unless he consistently displays his previous All-Star form. He's off to a rough start, faking an injury to give Nick Young a start, then asking out of the very next game with a groin injury.
X-Factor: Josh Howard is expected to miss the first month of the season as he recovers from knee surgery. Once he returns, he could be just what the Wizards need to fortify their backcourt rotation. There's a lot at stake for Howard to prove he can still play at an All-Star level. With Wall and Arenas getting all the attention, this is the perfect opportunity for Howard to make his comeback quietly.
|The Bobcats will lean heavily on Gerald Wallace this season. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: If Brown doesn't get a point guard, he'll turn on the entire roster and ask Michael Jordan and Rod Higgins to trade every player in the locker room twice. Don't laugh; it could happen.
X-Factor: Gerald Henderson. After a quiet rookie season, Henderson could change the complexion of Brown's rotation if he proves he's ready for more than eight minutes per game. He faces an uphill battle since Brown favors veterans at almost all costs. But the only way a low-revenue, small-market team like the Bobcats can make strides is through the draft. If Henderson gets a shot with a significant backup role, he could be ready to make a significant contribution as a defensive specialist.