By Kevin Pelton
Sep. 28, 2002
With the off-season
essentially complete and rosters close to how they’ll be during the
regular season, I thought I’d take this opportunity to record some
predictions for posterity so that in eight months you can re-read
them, e-mail me, and call me an idiot. For that matter, maybe you’ll
be able to do that in a month if an injury dramatically shifts
things. Then be sure to indicate, “What kind of idiot predicts
things before training camp?”
The answer to that, however, should already be clear: This kind
1. New Jersey
Way too much talent to finish anywhere
else in the East in my opinion. In the short term, the Dikembe
Mutombo trade should be very good for the Nets. They were a very
good defensive team last season, and with the addition of Mutombo
and the ascendance to the starting lineup of Richard Jefferson, they
could be legitimately great defensively.
Call it a blind spot because he was one of
the heroes of my youth, but I believe firmly that if given regular
minutes, Shawn Kemp can be a reasonably productive big man,
especially in the Eastern Conference. It’s not as if the Magic got a
lot up front last season; anything Kemp provides would probably make
them better in that regard. As well, Grant Hill almost has to
produce more than he did last season.
Going by point differential, the Sixers
should have had homecourt last year despite Allen Iverson missing 22
games. They've added some depth with players like Greg Buckner and
Monty Williams and . . . well, I really am not high on the Atlantic.
Again, I’m hardly objective on this count,
but I do believe that Vin Baker will prove to be the catalyst of the
Celtics’ demise down the stretch after a reasonably productive
start. If Baker doesn’t get touches in the post, he’s neither happy
nor productive in other areas of the game. Where will those touches
come from? Pierce and Walker dominated the offense last season in
Boston -- and rightfully so -- and taking shots from them and giving
them to Baker is not a good plan in my opinion. The question mark at
point guard also does not bode well for the Celtics.
Liked the Jerry Stackhouse trade, but
Larry Hughes may be my least favorite player in the NBA and Bryon
Russell didn't look like he had much left last year. Probably in the
running for a playoff spot to the end of the season, depending on
what Michael Jordan can give them.
6. New York
Yeech. No point guard, no center, no
Pat Riley would be Coach of the Year if this
team even came close to contending. Actually, that’s too
pessimistic; Caron Butler should be able to contribute immediately
and Brian Grant should improve on last season’s performance, but the
ultimate logic is simple: If the Heat can’t make the playoffs with
Alonzo Mourning, how will they even contend without him?
1. New Orleans
The Hornets have become a bit of a
trendy pick, but I can't disagree. It sounds crazy, but Jamaal
Magloire (who, of course, did not start last season) might be the
best center in the East and Campbell is a solid player there as
well. I'm not a big Courtney Alexander fan, but he'll have to be
better than Bryce Drew in a three-guard rotation with newly-extended
Baron Davis and David Wesley.
Finally in the playoffs the Pacers looked
like they had figured out how to fit their talent together. With Al
Harrington healthy, they're unbelievably deep, with the main
question naturally at point guard. Looking at some numbers on
similar rookies, I feel there's a pretty good chance that Jamaal
Tinsley shows some solid improvement this season, which would be
huge for the Pacers.
I got burned by the Hawks last year, Lon
Kruger is an inadequate coach in my opinion, and losing DerMarr
Johnson can't help, but I still can't see how they don't make the
playoffs. The Hawks can't possibly be hurt as badly by injuries as
last year, and Glenn Robinson will make for a fine third option.
I thought the Pistons would be a fairly
solid bet to decline even before making the Richard Hamilton deal,
but now I'm not sure they'll even make the playoffs. If they are
able to play as well as last season, then coach Rick Carlisle really
will be a miracle worker.
The Raptors’ problems have all been blamed
on alternately Vince Carter and Lenny Wilkens, but in my opinion the
real issue is the lack of a second scorer. Maybe Morris Peterson can
step up, but Antonio Davis is on the decline because of his age and
losing Keon Clark is huge.
Coach George Karl avoided flaming out in
Seattle when Wally Walker spared him his job in 1995, but I think
he'll make it three for four in Milwaukee. Tim Thomas taking
Robinson’s job shuffles the deck, but doesn’t really change the fact
that the Bucks get entirely too little from their centers and play
subpar perimeter defense. In the end, the biggest change for
Milwaukee this off-season might be in the coaching staff, and I
don’t see that as a positive.
I wouldn't be shocked if they passed up the
Bucks, but the Bulls are still a year away . . . kinda like the
Clippers two years ago, I think.
Yuck. At least they didn't have to
complete that Mateen Cleaves deal. Now-departed forward Lamond
Murray says what we’re all thinking about the Cavs.
1. San Antonio
Now that Emanuel Ginobili looks like an
instant contributor and the Spurs have added Kevin Willis as some
decent insurance for David Robinson up front, I think the Spurs will
be a very good regular season team again. Not that it will matter if
they meet the Lakers in the playoffs.
The Mavericks, looking at point differential,
were a little lucky to end up where they did last year and I'm not
sure how much better Popeye Jones will be than just giving more
minutes to Eduardo Najera. Based on that, I think the Mavericks will
again finish an extremely close fourth in the West. At least once
they get to the playoffs, they won't be starting Johnny Newman.
But I think the Timberwolves will be
behind four or five Pacific teams. The real Minnesota team, in my
opinion, showed itself in the second half (they went 20-21) and I'd
be fairly surprised if Terrell Brandon was as good as Chauncey
Billups was down the stretch last season. But at least they have Joe
Smith; isn’t that nice consolation?
I do think this will be the year the Jazz miss
the playoffs. Again . . . like everyone else, I've been thinking
that for nearly a decade, but this looks like the real deal. I love
Andrei Kirilenko, but not nearly enough talent around him, John
Stockton, and Karl Malone.
Looks like Yao Ming will have a lot of
difficulty with fouls this year . . . the long-term verdict is still
out in my opinion. Steve Francis should be healthy, but the Rockets’
problems went far beyond his injuries last year. Ming helps them
defensively, but they are still one of the NBA’s weakest teams on
that end of the court, especially if Glen Rice plays regularly.
This seems like a pretty important year for
the Grizzlies to see if they’re moving in the right direction.
Wesley Person and Michael Dickerson will be a dramatic improvement
on the Grant Long-Rodney Buford duo that played their minutes last
season (with Shane Battier moving from primarily playing the two to
small forward), but they’re very unlikely to catch anyone else in
Kiki Vandeweghe's long-term plan makes sense,
but this is going to be one heck of a long year, especially if the
Nuggets buy out or trade two of their remaining veterans, Mark
Jackson and Marcus Camby.
I don't think the top of the Pacific
surprises anyone. Barring a major disturbance involving Chris
Webber, the Kings should be the NBA’s best regular-season team
2. L.A. Lakers
This is an almost age-old story. Team
finishes second in the Pacific Division in the regular season, but
is still favorite to win the championship.
3. L.A. Clippers
The Clippers have maybe the best
all-around starting lineup in the league with the addition of Andre
Miller. In the Pacific, that’s only good enough for third place,
though they should be a serious threat to the West’s four elite
teams. Hopefully he and Elton Brand will get the credit they're due
this season, not to mention extensions. Well, then again, I’m a fan
of a Pacific foe. Maybe they shouldn’t get those extensions. . . .
Some shuffling of the deck, but I think the
Trail Blazers are still in the same position as the last few years .
. . needing a true go-to player that they count on night in and
night out. I may be alone on this, but I don’t see Rasheed Wallace
as a top 30 NBA player, and without one of those it’s very difficult
to go deep into the playoffs. Maybe Bonzi Wells can fill the void,
but that would require some dramatic improvement.
I think 3-5 in the Pacific are all pretty
close. Assuming of course Payton reports on time (I expect him to
maybe skip media day or a couple of a practices, but nothing
serious), the Sonics could well win 50 games. Last year they won 45
and were the team in the NBA that gained the most wins going from
actual wins to point differential. Losing Baker, naturally, will be
a huge positive. The main question mark is second-year power forward
Vladimir Radmanovic, but he was at the position during the Sonics’
best run last season and I believe he will be just fine this season.
I think the Suns will be better than they
were at the end of last season, and could very well be the best
non-playoff team in the West, but they are stuck in the most
difficult division in the NBA. Give them a few years; they’ll be
back in the thick of contention.
7. Golden State
The usual pre-season optimism about
them, but I expect it to be as unwarranted as usual and gone by
December 1. Even if this team was markedly improved (and it could
be), the gap between them and the rest of the division is enormous.
MVP: Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Kidd nearly got this award
last season on a Nets squad that should be worse than this year’s
incarnation. Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady will probably make another
strong run at this award and the Kobe/Shaq duo, if healthy, will
also be in the running, but they can’t stand up to the media
Sixth Man: Mike Miller, Orlando
This is a difficult
award to pick because whether a player will start regularly or not
is tough to predict. In Miller’s case, that will depend both on
Hill’s health and whether the Magic decide to oust Darrell Armstrong
and go with a three-forward lineup. My darkhorse candidate here is
Rodney Rogers of the Nets if there is a similar one-team run as in
2000 with the Sixers and last year with the Pistons.
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers, Orlando
difficult pick; the question is which team will overachieve most
relative to pre-season predictions. I like Orlando’s chances of
being a lot better than expected, and Rivers is also a favorite
amongst writers, which is the perfect fit for this award.
Rookie of the Year: Jay Williams, Chicago
the right combination of opportunity to play, NBA readiness, media
profile, and, well, talent to win this award. There are lots of
strong candidates for this award, but I think Williams is the
Defensive Player of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo, New
Mutombo actually declined a bit on the defensive end last
season, but should be rejuvenated in the Garden State and caught up
in the sweep of the Nets’ run.
L.A. Lakers defeat L.A. Clippers 4-1 in
Western Conference Finals (wouldn’t that be a great series?)
New Jersey defeats Indiana 4-3 in Eastern Conference Finals
(excellent rematch of last year’s first round matchup).
L.A. Lakers defeat New Jersey 4-0 in NBA Finals (as Yogi Berra
would say, like déjà vu all over again).
Kevin Pelton is the lead Pacific editor for News@Hoopsworld.com He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.