By Clint Longenecker
This is the first segment of a two-part preview of the National Basketball Association.
One of the most anticipated NBA seasons in recent memory is finally here.
The NBA’s playoff campaign was action packed and had fans glued to every minute of action. Every expert predicted the powerful Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers would match up in a legendary battle between two of the game’s superstars: Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. The overlooked Orlando Magic staged an upset, beating the Cavs in six games in the Eastern Conference finals and advancing to basketball’s biggest stage. During the finals, the Lakers stifled the hot shooting Magic in five games to hoist the golden Larry O’Brien trophy.
A flurry of offseason activity took place during the summer of 2009, leaving a clear view of potential contenders. The top teams in the league got stronger, while the league’s subpar teams shed contracts to weather the storm of the bad economy.
Strong Atlantic tide
The Atlantic Division featured two playoff teams from 2008: the 62-win Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. The New Jersey Nets, Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks all had losing records, making it the conference’s worst division.
The division should be the Celtics’ to lose for the third straight year. The big three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett return for what could be their last run together due to Allen’s impending free agency. Last year, Garnett suffered a knee injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the playoffs. This injury appears to be healed but it is an area that bears watching. A healthy Garnett could catapult the team to the East’s top squad with the emergence of Rajon Rando and offseason acquisitions Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels.
The Philadelphia 76ers retain a very talented roster that competed with the Magic in their first round matchup. Gone is veteran Andre Miller, but youngster Louis Williams looks to keep the squad running fast offensively.
Last year’s big acquisition, PF Elton Brand, should provide more than just the 29 games he put in last season after separating his shoulder. When healthy, Brand will provide the 76ers with consistent scoring and rebounding to help emerging star Andre Iguodala and underrated Thaddeus Young.
The Toronto Raptors had more offseason turnover than any team in the league. Back are centerpieces Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani. They are joined by many new faces. The big prize is former Orlando Magic playoff hero Hedo Turkoglu.
The Raptors also drafted DeMar DeRozan from the University of Southern California to fill out the starting five.
Neither the New York Knicks nor New Jersey Nets made any moves to improve their squads this season. Both teams made moves with an eye towards the future as the Knicks look to contend in next season’s robust free agent class. They play an exciting brand of basketball under Head Coach Mike D’Antoni that pushes the pace, resulting in many points scored for both teams.
The Knickerbockers offer some young talent with David Lee, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, but the odds are that this team will not be a factor in the season. The same can be said about the Nets, as they traded Vince Carter, putting the emphasis on getting younger players around All-Star Devin Harris and the emerging Brook Lopez.
Exciting Central class
The Central Division boasted three playoff teams a year ago in the Cavs, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons.
The Cavs hope to win a title in what could be superstar Lebron James’ last year in Cleveland due to his upcoming and long-awaited free agency. Supplying help, Shaquille O’Neal was acquired for spare parts.
The team also focused on taller perimeter plays with shooting ability to spread the floor for Lebron, adding Anthony Parker and Jamairo Moon. Pairing them with smaller Guards Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson should provide more defensive flexibility, as their lack of height was exposed against the Magic in the playoffs. The Cavs should once again be one of the league’s top teams with a chance to duplicate last season’s 66-win performance.
The Chicago Bulls showcased their talent against the Boston Celtics in last season’s legendary seven-game playoff matchup.
Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose is a truly exciting player, with as much offensive ability as any young point guard in the league. These Bulls have a good, young nucleus with Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah and help from veterans John Salmons and Brad Miller.
If this core group can further gel under coach Vinny Del Negro they could leap into the East’s upper echelon.
The nucleus of the Detroit Pistons championship-winning 2004 season is dwindling, with only Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince remaining. The Pistons spent $90 million to acquire Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva this season. Detroit’s modus operandi this year will be to outscore their opponents with talented scorers like Rodney Stuckey, since they no longer play tough defense.
The Indiana Pacers were a tough squad last year, flush with shooters and led by blossoming star Danny Granger. Their only significant addition was Tyler Hansborough.
This could be a team that takes a step forward with their young nucleus of Roy Hibbert, Troy Murphy and Brandon Rush. However, defensive issues could be their undoing.
The Bucks of Milwaukee spent their offseason trading away assets in exchange for future cap room and letting their free agents walk. Gone are consistent performers like Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions without netting anything in return. Sharpshooter Michael Redd should provide scoring. Head Coach Scott Skiles will have to do a masterful job to keep this subpar team out of the cellar.
Rise of the Southeast?
The Southeast Division could be competitive after featuring three playoff teams last year.
The Eastern champion Magic have big expectations after last year’s run. Hedo Turkoglu is gone, but high flier Vince Carter is in. He is a real wild card, having never been on a good team and having a selfish reputation, but the talent is there. He’s one of four All-Stars along with Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.
Their bench is deeper this year with Jason Williams, Brandon Bass, and Matt Barnes. If they can continue to be sharpshooters from the three and play outstanding defense they could represent the East in the Finals.
The Miami Heat had a quiet offseason, with minimal changes as superstar Dwayne Wade is back after leading the league in scoring. If Michael Beasley can live up his potential and avoid off the court distractions he’ll provide a strong scoring threat. The Heat could have a very good year led by Wade, with help from Jermaine O’Neal.
The Alanta Hawks made it to the second round of last year’s playoffs, with an athletic squad that boasts an excellent starting five. Led by SG Joe Johnson and PF Josh Smith, the starting unit registered nearly 80 points a contest. If the bench can provide scoring this could be a exciting squad.
The Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards remain in the fray for postseason contention, with starkly different styles. The Bobcats’ forte is defense led by Gerald Wallace and Tyson Chandler, while the Wizards’ calling card is an unrelenting offensive attack led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.
This season should be a compelling one, with the top three teams clearly defined: Cleveland, Boston and Orlando.
Other good teams like Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami are looking to make the jump into the upper tier. As TNT relentlessly proclaims, this season should make for some drama, so tune in to find out who will emerge to represent the East for a shot to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The NBA season kicked off on Oct. 27. For more information on NBA teams and a preview of the Western Conference, check out next week’s Beacon.