Tuesday, October 12, 2010

NBA East Will Be Battle of Big Threes

By Bob Ekstrom

NBA general managers got a bit ahead of themselves last week when they penciled in the Los Angeles Lakers for a three-peat, but they did nail half the NBA Finals matchup in the process. The Lakers should clinch the Western Conference title as soon as they step onto the court in their season opener against the Houston Rockets on October 26, so weak is their competition. The real question is, who will be their opponent?

While the West is its usual one-horse race, the East is anything but. One perennial contender may have fallen by the wayside when LeBron James moved from Cleveland to Miami, but five other teams have more than a delusional chance of coming out of the East.

The Atlanta Hawks are the biggest stretch. They won 53 games last season, but their resources have been invested in re-signing Joe Johnson and replacing head coaches. It's hard to see them improving over the team that was swept by Orlando last year.

Chicago replaced coaches too, but in Tom Thibodeau, they have acquired one of the best defensive minds in the NBA today. The addition of Carlos Boozer to an energetic young roster will make the Bulls a team you won't want to face on certain nights, but in the past two seasons combined, they've only gained 12 games of playoff experience. It's not difficult seeing them climb another rung this year, but these Bulls aren't ready for the heights of the Eastern Finals, much less the Lakers.

Orlando has a cadre of quality starters, but their offense goes into a funk each spring. Last May the egregiousness of letting Celtic-killing Hedo Turkoglu walk came to roost as Boston rolled the Magic in the Eastern semis. Vince Carter wilted in the spotlight, Jameer Nelson lost the point guard matchup against Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard often found himself on an island. Yet Orlando's front office recommitted to this lineup, with Quentin Richardson their only prime-time addition. Much like the other Eastern contenders, they'll only go as far as the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics let them.

Yes, the 2010-11 East will be settled by the Heat and Celtics. A Battle of Big Three's. The new guard against the old. No two teams improved themselves more this summer. No two teams found better complements to their weaknesses.

Take Miami. The Heat failed to advance past the first round last April because they lacked any legitimate scoring threat beyond Dwyane Wade. In addition to re-signing him — not a foregone conclusion when he spent the opening days of free agency either arriving at or departing from Chicago's O'Hare Airport — owner Micky Arison and GM Pat Riley also acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in deals that morphed into sign-and-trades, allowing each to be extended an extra year. All three deals were consummated on July 9, a date that may have changed the face of the Eastern Conference for years to come.

Overnight, Miami became the early frontrunners, notwithstanding the consensus of league GMs. In James, Bosh, and Wade, the NBA's newest Big Three are 25-, 26-, and 28-years old, respectively. Considering one of them is arguably the best player in the game today, and that all three are being added to a playoff-ready roster, it's small wonder why Vegas loves the Heat.

Even with a limited supporting cast in Cleveland, LeBron carried the Cavaliers into at least the second round in each of his last five seasons, including one trip to the NBA Finals. Imagine what he can do with the likes of superstars Wade and Bosh, along with capable point guards in Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo; returning forwards Udonis Haslem and James Jones; and fourth-year center Joel Anthony.

Accommodating LeBron and Bosh has meant having to part ways with three starters from last season — Quentin Richardson, Michael Beasley, and Jermaine O'Neal. But the acquisition of key role players in shooting guard Eddie House, swingman Mike Miller, power forward Juwan Howard, and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who played alongside LeBron for each of the latter's seven years in Cleveland, will provide depth and versatility. Competition for final roster spots figures to be stiff among the new rookie class, making South Beach giddy with talk of a 72-win season.

Of course, last year at this time, Boston was giddy with similar talk, particularly from the newly-acquired and bust-to-be Rasheed Wallace. But the Celtics did little else to improve a drained and injury-plagued roster after a disappointing 2008-09 finish. The Aged Three — Ray Allen is now 35, Kevin Garnett 34, and Paul Pierce going on 33 — slept-walked through much of last season, going 27-27 in the final 54 games, 3-7 in the final 10. Then a funny thing happened on the way to an early spring exit. They found renewed life.

The Green took five games to dispense with Wade's Heat, which had been the league's hottest team heading into the postseason. They handily beat LeBron's Cavaliers and their league-best 61-21 record, and built a 3-0 lead over Orlando before winning in six. But against the Lakers, they lacked the length to close out their 18th title. Over the seven-game Finals the Celtics were out-rebounded, 297-265, including a 92-71 deficit on the offensive boards. The Lakers grabbed 23 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points in Game 7. Boston had 43 shots blocked in the series.

So this summer, the C's got longer.

In July, GM Danny Ainge signed 6-foot-11 Jermaine O'Neal, and in August, 7-foot-1 Shaquille O'Neal. But one of the biggest surprises this preseason is the play of 6-foot-11 Semih Erden, a second-round draft pick in 2008 who has been playing in his native Turkey the past two seasons. Erden appeared destined to be the departing Brian Scalabrine's replacement as fan darling, but 19 points and 14 rebounds in 69 preseason minutes now make him a legitimate candidate for meaningful minutes this winter.

And there should be plenty of opportunities with 6-foot-10 Kendrick Perkins not due back in the lineup until at least January as he rehabs from a torn ACL. Rounding out the front court are Garnett and the 6-foot-9 Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who is comfortable in both small and power forward positions.

The C's got longer up front, but they got even longer in the tooth. Coach Doc Rivers' master plan to give his second unit some quality closing time this preseason will get Marquis Daniels and Delonte West battle-ready to spell Pierce and Allen, and the youthful Rondo has capable point relief in Nate Robinson. As with the Heat, a mix of intriguing free agents will compete with draftees for the remaining spots, with not a lot of time available.

The extent to which Rivers can build a deep enough roster to fill the gaps that develop from injuries and rest requirements will determine his team's chances for a rematch against the Lakers. However, Miami just doesn't have those questions. Right now, the Heat look like the best bet to prove general managers across the NBA wrong come June.

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