Early Eastern Conference Preview

[#Andy note – This was originally posted on LeBrowns Town]

With all due respect to Allen Iverson and Ramon Sessions aside, Lamar Odom’s decision to re-sign with the Lakers last week signifies the end of this year’s NBA Free Agent bonanza.  While the Cavaliers still have their Bi-Annual Exception, I don’t foresee Rob Kurz, Steve Novak, Joe Smith, or Wally Szczerbiak significantly upgrading the 09-10 roster.  With that being said, the Cavs did not get worse in the off-season.  Here are the additions and subtractions…

Ben Wallace (Trade w/ PHO)
Sasha Pavlovic (Trade w/ PHO)
Wally Szczerbiak (UFA)
Joe Smith (UFA)
Lorenzen Wright (UFA)
Tarence Kinsey (Waived)

Shaquille O’Neal (Trade w/ PHO)
Anthony Parker (FA from TOR)
Jamario Moon (FA from MIA)
Danny Green (2nd Round Draft Pick — Unsigned)

Shaq becoming the starting center  improves the Cavs on both ends of the floor with his big body on defense bringing the Cavs a luxury they have missed for over a decade. Meanwhile, Zydrunas Ilgauskas coming off the bench gives the Cavs an obvious upgrade over Joe Smith/Ben Wallace and a scoring punch from all over the floor.  Parker and Moon should excel defensively under Mike Brown’s tutelage, and will exceed Sasha and Wally’s combined 12 PPG. Wright and Kinsey, despite fan appeal, are non-factors except in extensive injured reserve situations.

With that surmised–The Cavaliers will easily win the Eastern Conference.  The reason for this is that every team in the East became worse with their free agent signings/acquisitions.  Coming off a year where they finished 76-20, losing to only the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, Cleveland was, and still is, the cream of the crop.  An astounding 45-3 at home, they dominated all teams except for the Lakers and Magic–the two teams that were in the finals.

Since the Eastern Conference is very bottom heavy, every team will be addressed albeit briefly:  (NOTE that all records are last year’s regular season records)

The Lottery Scrubs:

  • Washington (19-63):  A healthy Arenas and the addition of Randy Foye and Mike Miller mean nothing.  The Cavs beat this team three years in a row, and will beat them four out of five if it comes (and possibly will) to that.
  • New York (32-50):  A team that is foolishly saving for 2010 to try to lure LeBron and another premiere free agent.  With the cap potentially decreasing upwards of $4 million, that will be next to impossible.  Either way, not on the postseason radar.
  • Toronto (33-49):  The addition of Hedo Turkoglu paired with Chris Bosh is a formidable late game combination.  This of course assumes that they are able to keep it close enough to run the infamous Turkoglu screen-roll for the game winner at the end.  A contender for the postseason, but not a threat without the abundance of outside shooters that Orlando had.
  • Milwaukee (34-38):  Who knows what their current game plan is.  Either way, they have enough talent to win games, but not enough cohesion to contend.  Possibly squeaking into the 8 seed, but an easy sweep.
  • New Jersey (34-38):  Replacing Vince Carter with Courtney Lee is a good plan in the long run, but Rafer Alston will not be happy coming off the bench.  Essentially the same team as last year.
  • Charlotte (35-47):  The most scary thing about this team is that they could still sign Allen Iverson to team up with Larry Brown for a year.  The most satisfying thing about them is that they still will struggle to break .500.
  • Indiana (36-46):  There was once a movie called ‘White Men Can’t Jump’.  Half their roster will be on IR, and Granger will attempt to carry them.  No chance of winning a seven-game series.

The Playoff Pretenders:

  • Detroit (39-43):  The Pistons made the biggest Free Agent splash of the year by signing two big names right at the beginning.  However, the signings of Gordon and Villanueva didn’t fix the gaping hole under the basket which was only widened by the departure of McDyess and Wallace.  When your best five are all 6-11 and under, and that one guy that is 6-11 is Charlie Villanueva, you aren’t making it deep into the playoffs.  Prince showed last year that he couldn’t play the 4–hence why Iverson was sent to the bench and eventually shown the door.  I don’t foresee that changing this year.
  • Chicago (41-41):  When your big move of the offseason is letting your best clutch shooter leave in free agency (Granted, I wouldn’t want Barrage of Bad Shots Ben Gordon on my team either), I tend not to be worried about you.  Shaq/Z easily match up with Miller, and Noah is a poor man’s Anderson Varejao.  No issues here.
  • Philadelphia (41-41):  Another team that is hoping addition by subtraction pays off.  While I feel Jrue Holiday will turn into a solid veteran in the NBA (Probably never an All-Star or All-NBA guy), he’s no better than Andre Miller.  Even if Elton Brand comes back healthy, his and Iguodala’s styles still don’t mesh, so another .500 season and first round exit will be had by the Sixers.
  • Miami (43-39):  I’m pretty sure no one knows what Miami’s game plan is.  A failure to sign Lamar Odom means that unless they end up trading for Carlos Boozer, they have the exact same team as last year.  Yes, Chalmers and Beasley will both have a year more experience under their belts, but that means O’Neal and Wade will both be a year older and have another year’s mileage on their knees.  We’re more than 2/3rds through the Eastern Conference with nay a challenger.
  • Atlanta (47-35):  Just like the past two teams… The Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the second round and made no additions to make it past that point next season.

What Really Matters…

And finally where it almost remotely gets interesting.  So interesting that I’m switching up the order for suspense.

Boston (62-20):  The Celtics’ big move was not re-signing the very capable Big Baby Davis (though this could still change), and replacing him with temperamental 35-year old, Rasheed Wallace.  This is the same starting five that the Cavs haven’t lost to on their home court.

And Rasheed hasn’t been a factor against the Cavs recently. While starting for the Pistons in 12 games against the Cavs over the past two seasons, Sheed has averaged only 8.8 PPG, with only one game over 20 points, and the significant majority being single digit scoring efforts. Unless Wallace decides to invoke the spirit of a game seven Leon Powe, there’s nothing to worry about here as long as the Cavs have the home court advantage, and most likely even if they don’t.

Orlando (59-23):  Orlando succeeded (and failed) on two significant premises.  They ran an unconventional lineup that had two stretch forwards, surrounded by a deadly center and three-point shooters.  The second premise is that because of the irregularity, they had only a mediocre shooting guard. This off-season they decided to throw that entire formula out the window.  By letting Hedo walk, they lost the part of their offense that plays directly into the Cavs deficiency–two long forwards that can play away from the hoop, since only LeBron is capable of defending those type of players.  (Granted, the addition of Moon may help in this department).

The Magic felt their loss to the Lakers was predicated on not having a shooting guard to match up with Kobe Bryant.  The answer to this problem?  Vince Carter.  Sure, trading for Vinsanity as well as signing Brandon Bass and re-signing Marcin Gortat allows you to match up with the Lakers much better, but what good does it do if you can’t get there?

They now fit the mold of a prototypical NBA team that the Cavs match up with amazingly well.  LeBron will guard Rashard Lewis, who shifts to play small forward, thus eliminating the mismatch that the Magic had by playing Lewis at the 4.  Delonte will spend the entire game hounding Vince Carter.  As the only player besides Devin Harris that could make a shot for the Nets last year, Carter averaged 19 ppg as a volume scorer against the Cavs.  Taking significantly less shots due to the better players around him (Lewis and Howard, we’ll hypothesize that Harris and Nelson cancel out), Carter will be lucky to average 13 a night.  Plus, Varejao matches up better against Bass than Lewis, so he can play the whole game

What the Magic/Cavs games will come down to is Mike Brown. If he lets Dwight Howard go crazy, and go for 30 points, 15 rebounds per game against Shaq/Z, the Cavs will win. Between Carter’s need for shots and the amount of possessions it will take Howard to score that many, it is a perfect storm for a Cavaliers victory.

However, knowing Mike Brown, he will probably do something ridiculous in response to a lopsided loss that happens solely because Nelson, Carter, Lewis, and Pietrus off the bench combine to shoot 85 percent from three-point range.  Most likely his strategy will be to start doubling Dwight again.  Luckily, with Brandon Bass in the lineup instead of Hedo, you only have to worry about containment to 15-feet instead of a 24-foot three-point shooter.  Even at this juncture, there is little to worry about, because at best it will be a close game going into the final stretch run much like the games of last year’s Easter Conference Finals.  What killed the Cavs repeatedly is the screen roll with Turkoglu and Howard. With Turkoglu gone, it will fall to Jameer Nelson’s very capable hands to run the play.

Ultimately, while still dangerous, this is far easier to defend than with Hedo handling the ball, and with Bass in the lineup (though chances are the Magic would play small with Lewis at the 4 and Pietrus at the 3) the advantage falls to Cleveland. The Cavs can move Delonte over to the ball handler with Mo playing off-the-ball where he is a capable defender, and Varejao playing off of Bass to contribute weak-side help defense.  This should all but ensure a tough shot or a quick pass to Carter or Lewis who will have time to do little but catch-and-shoot.  These are odds I’ll take, especially with Carter advancing in age and Lewis having LeBron draped over him.

So with all that having been said, I couldn’t be happier about the way the off-season has progressed in the NBA.  I feel the Cavs are ridiculous favorites to run away with the East.  If they lose more than four games in the playoffs on the road to the NBA Finals (barring significant injury), I will be aghast. Once they get to the Finals, it is another story, as formidible foes await in the West.  Make sure to register and feel free to disprove my theories in the comments section below, I will respond and discuss the top threats in the West in [a much shorter] Part Two coming later.