In With a Chance

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It’s no secret that the East has been the weaker of the NBA’s two conferences for a few years now, and promises to be so again next season. In the West it’s a dogfight to make the playoffs—you can be a good team and still miss out—but in the East you can be the Milwaukee Bucks, finishing 6 games under .500, and still make it.

Next season the East should be as top heavy as always. The 5 best teams on paper—Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn, and New York—will be miles better than the rest. But towards the bottom of the standings there should be some change. Boston and Philadelphia seem set to tank for Andrew Wiggins (I believe Ainge will blow things up pretty soon if the Celtics get off to a slow start), while Atlanta and Milwaukee will fight for the 8th seed, but are considerably weaker than last year. And the Raptors?…ugh…who knows.

That opens the door for the following 3 lottery teams from last season, to make a push for the playoffs in the coming year.

Washington Wizards
(2012-13 Record: 29-53)

In a complete vacuum John Wall isn’t worth his newly signed 5-year, $80 million deal. $16 million per year is an absurd amount of money to pay a point-guard with an injury history, who has yet to prove that he can shoot the basketball with anything nearing consistency. But the Wizards aren’t paying Wall for the player he is now—raw, flawed, and immensely promising—they’re paying him to be the player he has the potential to become 2 or 3 years from now. Towards the end of last season (most explicitly in his 47-point explosion against Memphis) we saw a guy who could be a game-changer in the NBA. We saw rapidly improving passer, a supremely gifted athlete (he’s always possessed that trait), and a lock-down defender at the point guard position. If that John Wall is able to play 82 games next year, the Wizards have a real chance of making the post-season.

 
 
Of course, Wall will require some help, and that’s where long-suffering Wizards fans will have to pray to the basketball gods to help their team avoid the injuries that plagued them last season. Nene, who in theory could be a fantastic pick-n-roll partner for Wall, needs to be healthy, while the other veterans –  guys like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza – will have to contribute the kind of steady defense they gave the team last year (Incidentally, for a team that won 29 games, Washington was pretty decent defensively last year).
 
 

Rookie Otto Porter doesn’t have to, and probably won’t, set the world alight (just play good defense, Otto), but much is expected from second-year man, Bradley Beal. If Beal, with his sweet shooting stroke, can be that spot-up shooting option for his team—the perfect foil for the penetrating and kicking Wall—then the Wizards could become very dangerous. At the very least they’re set win more than 29 games next season.

Detroit Pistons
(2012-13 Record: 29-53)

You don’t have to be that old to remember a time when the Detroit Pistons were an Eastern Conference powerhouse. The Pistons made 6 straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances between 2003-2008, and made back-to-back NBA Finals during that stretch, winning it all in 2004. That’s a staggeringly impressive run of success—a run that we don’t talk about enough, in part because those Pistons teams weren’t very glamorous (like their Bad Boy predecessors) and partly because it all got very depressing after 2008. The glory days of Chauncey Billups hitting massive shots, and Big Ben Wallace snaring rebounds, were quickly replaced by the not-so-nice memories of Allen Iverson’s cadaver trying to play ball, ridiculous contracts to guys like Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, and the idea that Rodney Stuckey was the future of the franchise. Great teams can’t stay great forever, but that’s quite the fall from grace.

 
 

2013-14 holds a lot of promise for Pistons fans, however. Joe Dumars had money to spend this summer, which is not always a good thing, but he seems to have made some solid investments. Whatever your opinion is on Josh Smith’s questionable shot selection (if you believe it’s god-awful, you’d be entirely rational) J-Smoove brings so much that’s positive to the table—great defending, supreme athleticism, scoring around the basket, and underrated passing —that he’s absolutely worth $14 million per year. Dumars also traded the talented, but flawed, Brandon Knight, for a slightly more talented, and very flawed, Brandon Jennings. The prospect of Jennings on a max-deal—the max deal that he insisted he was worth—was frightening, but a 3-year, $24 million contract for a guy with a lot of upside, seems like a risk worth taking.

When you add Jennings and Smith to the talent already on the Pistons roster—the underrated Greg Monroe, and immensely raw and exciting Andre Drummond, you have the makings of a 6th seed in the East. The potential spacing issues with Smith, Monroe, and Drummond are troubling, but as Dumars has said himself, Drummond isn’t ready to play 40 minutes a night, so Smith will still see a lot of time at the 4-spot.

 
 

For many fans, finishing among the low playoff seeds is a recipe for long-term disaster—you’re outside the realm of contending for a championship, and not able to make impactful selections in the draft. But as bad, and as unwatchable as the Pistons have been in the last few years (with the exception of Charlotte, there’s no team I’ve avoided watching more over the last two seasons), having a team that should play a brand of unpredictable, yet exciting basketball, and that should make the playoffs, is a major upgrade for Pistons fans.

Cleveland Cavaliers
(2012-13 Record: 24-58)

Of all the NBA lottery teams that could make the post-season in 2013-14, the Cavaliers have the highest ceiling. On paper they look very good. After winning the draft lottery, and sort of embarrassing themselves in the process (as Zach Lowe’s written, the celebrations were a little nauseating) Dan Gilbert looks to have made a determined effort this off-season to make sure his team isn’t NBA cannon fodder once again. As well as drafting the talented Canadian, Anthony Bennett, first overall, the Cavaliers signed Jarrett Jack—a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season—a competent shooter in Earl Clark, and most intriguingly, a part-time bowler named Andrew Bynum. Remember him?

 
 
Two seasons ago most people were discussing Bynum—myself included—in terms of being the 2nd best centre in the league—narrowly behind Dwight Howard (some people even believed he was better than Dwight). But last season Bynum didn’t play a second of basketball, and garnered more headlines for his crazy hairstyles and bowling/dancing antics, than anything to do with the hard-court.
 
For most G.M.s he became toxic—not worth the risk—but the Cavaliers took a chance on the former All-Star. And really, it’s not that big of a risk. He signed a two-year deal, but with a team option for the second year, and only $6 million of his $12 million salary is guaranteed next year. If he falls apart physically again the costs are low, but if he’s remotely close to the player he was in L.A., the Cavs have an absolute bargain.
 
 

Cleveland has a lot of talent on the books with Bynum, Jack, Bennett, Anderson Varejao, and the ever-improving Tristan Thompson; but ultimately their superstar, Kyrie Irving, will be the difference maker as far as their chances of making the playoffs next season. It’s impossible to speak too highly of Irving—the guy has it all. He sees the court well, can finish in traffic, can shoot from downtown, might have the best handles in the game (just ask Brandon Knight), and has all the intangibles you’d want from a superstar player—he never seems fazed. The Cavaliers earned everyone’s sympathy when LeBron walked away, but snaring Irving a year later was a pretty nice consolation. The one worry with Irving, as with John Wall, is his propensity to get injured. Irving missed 15 games in his rookie year, and 23 games last season. It goes without saying that the Cavs need him to play a full season. If he does, they’re a decent bet to make the post-season next year.

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