Friday, October 13, 2006

NBA 06-07: Hoppers and Droppers

With training camps in full swing and the season a short couple of weeks away, it's high time that we start the NBA chatter. First off, contrary to popular belief, the other members of this blogroll actually do exist. I stopped contributing for a while for 2 reasons: 1) I'm lazy, and 2) I was composing a post predicting that the Miami Heat would win the NBA championship, the US national basketball team would finish 3rd in the worlds, and the Maurice Clarett would get arrested getting his goose on while wearing a bulletproof vest and welding a hatchet, but lost it when my computer crashed. Ok, I made one of those two reasons up.

No matter. The point is, the NBA season is almost upon us, and I'm going to predict the teams poised to make the biggest jumps this year and those set to take a plunge, or the Hoppers and the Droppers, respectively (for those who struggled to make that connection).


Houston Rockets: +12 wins (34 last year)

The Rockets look to make the biggest leap this year almost solely by virtue of how much they underperformed last year. Granted, T-Mac only played 47 games and was probably in pain while he was on the court. Once again, how well Houston does depends again on T-Mac keeping the back from spasming as much as possible. But assuming T-Mac plays at least 65 games (eminently reasonable, considering that he has played at least 67 games since the 99-00 season until last year), the Rockets will make a nice jump this year.

The Rockets have had an active offseason that addressed a couple of glaring weaknesses. First, they traded Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift to Memphis for Shane Battier. The Rockets desperately needed a shooter to spread the floor, and Battier's spot-up skills will fit in nicely with Yao and T-Mac. It immediately gives Houston's two stars a reliable scorer to kick the ball out to on double-teams, and also provides a hustling defender. Look for Houston's entire defense to improve as a result, with Battier being able to slow down the opposition and make it easier for Yao to guard the rim. Battier will also relieve Rafer Alston of the burden of shooting, and spare every NBA fan from having to watch Rafer throw up bricks night in and night out. The Rockets also stole Bonzi Wells for a cheap $2.5 million per year when no one was willing to shell out $60 million (rumor has it that Isiah Thomas was ready to offer Bonzi that much money before he realized that Bonzi was not an undersized power forward). Bonzi will help a weak second unit and allow Van Gundy to spell T-Mac longer during games, potentially keeping him fresher and healthier. I expect Houston to make the playoffs, but won't make it past the first round unless they can finagle a first-round matchup date with Denver.

Boston Celtics: +7 (33)
After winning 45 games two year ago, the Celtics took a big step back last year, winning only 33 games and returning to the lottery. Near the end of last year, management threw in the towel, trading away Ricky Davis, Raef Lafrentz and Dan Dickau. In return, they got Wally Sczzxvzcerbiak and Sebastian Telfair. They have also slowly amassed a wealth of promising young talent that could lead them to the playoffs, perhaps even this year. Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Tony Allen, and Kendrick Perkins all have a future in the league, and if even half of these kids reach their potential, the Celtics have a bright future. And with Allan Ray and Rajon Rondo (who has had a sick preseason so far) waiting in the wings, the Celtics can be good for a long time. So in spite of Danny Ainge’s best efforts, the Celtics have a bright future.

However, as is often the case with a team on the cusp, there could be some tension over positions as the year progresses. Even though Telfair has yet to develop a jump shot and is incredibly turnover prone, management will want to justify their trade and likely exert pressure to give him the bulk of the point guard minutes. This will take minutes away from Delonte West, who was a pleasant surprise last season on both ends of the floor. Wally is a good offensive player, but couldn’t stay in front of my grandmother on defense. Nevertheless, he remains the starter as Gerald Green tries to develop some consistency to go along with his crazy athleticism.

The entire key to the Celtic’s season is Al Jefferson. If he can develop into a legitimate low-post scorer, it will really open up the floor for Pierce and Wally. Jefferson has shown flashes of potential, and this year might finally be his coming-out party. I’m going to go out on a limb and put some trust in the Celtic’s young guns to make the playoffs this year. When the Nets start slipping in a year or so, the Celtics will rise to the top of the Atlantic. They are a player or two away from being a championship threat, but the future is bright in Boston. I am already dreading the inevitable return of the dormant Celtic fan, though it will be nice to see this once-dominant franchise regain some glory.

Honorable Mentions:
Chicago Bulls: +6 (41)
Orlando Magic: +6 (36)
New Orleans Hornets: +5 (38)
Phoenix Suns: +5 (54)
Atlanta Hawks: +5 (26)

Droppers in the next post...

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